“Mija” was directed by Isabel Castro, a Mexican-American documentarian who is making the leap from television to feature films with this Sundance Labs project. She does this with a deep empathy for her subjects, who all come from similar, but not identical, backgrounds. As a result, “Mija” weaves a more nuanced emotional tapestry than typically seen in immigration stories like this. Yes, sadness and fear are present. But gratitude, resentment, guilt, stress, hope, and excitement are also central to Doris’ story, her family’s story, and the Mexican-American community as a whole.
All of these emotions are expressed through the music, which forms the backbone of the film. Ecuadorian-American avant-pop artist Helado Negro wrote the film’s score, and the soundtrack is filled with tracks from indie Latinx acts like Divino Niño, Omar Apollo, Buscabulla, KAINA, and The Marias. These round out the two artists who actually appear as themselves in “Mija”: Cuco, the bedroom sensation that Doris directs at the start of the film, and Jacks Haupt, a Dallas Chicana teenager obsessed with Amy Winehouse and Lana. Del Rey who Doris lights up on Instagram.
The performance scenes that dot the film sway under dreamy multicolored lights, emphasizing the music’s escapist qualities while using the relative size of venues and crowds to show where Cuco and Jacks are at in their careers. The behind-the-scenes glimpses of the recording sessions and photo shoots are more varied: some are downright romantic, while others show the more monotonous side of the business. Jacks’ parents don’t approve of their daughter’s risky career choices and chew on her more than once on speakerphone during her big career trip to Los Angeles. Through it all, Doris stands in the background, feeling responsible for everything and everyone.