An overworked group of admissions officers are shuffling through applications from the best and brightest teens in the U.S. We hear voice overs of wannabe students bragging about their national merit scholarships and how they’d love to have dinner with Mother Teresa. As one officer tosses an app to the reject pile, a teenage girl speaks up, proclaiming that her mom is her hero. We’re intrigued. The girl is Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), the wide-eyed daughter of Flor (Paz Vega), a steadfast immigrant, recent Los Angeles transplant, and primary character of “Spanglish.” But as Cristina’s voice booms on, she’s inadvertently squandering Flor’s ability to tell her own story, our first indication that “Spanglish” will be a misdirected emotional mess.
Released in 2004, this dramedy jaunt from James L. Brooks follows Flor and Cristina as they’re semi-adopted into the Clasky family. a wealthy group of west siders whose chief worry isn’t having enough money but too much. As Flor is busy picking up the Clasky’s scraps and washing their clothes, we get a peek at the family’s dirty laundry lining the hardwood floor. John (Adam Sandler) is an acclaimed chef who is desperately afraid of success and spending less time with his family. Deborah (Tea Leoni) is a distracted, anxious matriarch unable to maintain a happy relationship with her daughter Bernice (Sarah Steele). Then there’s Evelyn (Cloris Leachman), the lovable, alcoholic granny who regales her grandkin with tales of her jazz career while slipping in some much needed relationship tips to her daughter Deborah whenever possible.
Despite not speaking English, Flor manages to bridge meaningful connections with the Claskys but remains unafraid to utilize Cristina as translator when she needs to yell at them. It doesn’t matter if Flor can’t verbalize the words for sweater or sewing machine, she’s still able to use her hands and heart to help Bernice fit into a new jacket. And when John rewards Cristina with a hefty dose of cash after her unexpected performance in an amateur treasure hunt, Flor doesn’t hold back from spewing hordes of angst-filled Spanish sentences his way.
There’s some resonant emotional themes swirling around Flor, like the need to stay true to one’s identity, or how compassion is universal in every language. But the movie doesn’t really dive deep enough into what makes Flor tick. If this is being presented to us as Cristina’s recollection of her mom’s time with the Claskys, every description and depiction of Flor feels inherently incomplete.
It’s disappointing, considering we get more than enough insight into the inner workings of each of the Clasky clan. John is a pristine character in the rare position of grappling with fame and fortune he doesn’t want but can’t disregard. Bernice is an apt depiction of an early adolescent who would be happy if it weren’t for all the needless, external forces weighing her down. Deborah succeeds as the wealthy wife meant to frustrate us, but is too unlikable to make us empathize with her or her mistakes. And Evelyn is reliable for some consistent comedic banter and the occasional dose of senior wisdom.
This leaves “Spanglish” feeling in a constant state of stagnation, like there’s a better story looming in another room but everyone’s too busy bustling around in the kitchen to spot it. The best scenes are with Flor and John, particularly in the third act when he’s cooking a private meal for the mom at his four-star restaurant. It’s the type of raw intimacy and honest catharsis we’ve been waiting over an hour to witness, an interaction that finally delivers thanks to Vega’s and Sandler’s captivating performances. But the scene happens far too late, leaving “Spanglish” a film that preaches about identity but can’t find one of its own.