“Mija” was directed by Isabel Castro, a Mexican-American documentarian who makes the leap from TV to features with this Sundance Labs project. She does so with a sense of profound empathy with her subjects, all of whom come from similar—but not identical—backgrounds. As a result, “Mija” weaves a more nuanced emotional tapestry than is typically seen in immigration stories like this one. Yes, sadness and fear are present. But gratitude, resentment, guilt, stress, hope, and excitement are also essential to Doris’ story, her family’s story, and the Mexican-American community at large.
All of these emotions are expressed through music, which forms the backbone of the film. Ecuadorian-American avant-pop artist Helado Negro wrote the score for the film, and the soundtrack is stuffed with tracks from Latinx indie acts like Divino Niño, Omar Apollo, Buscabulla, KAINA, and The Marias. These supplement the two artists who actually appear as themselves in “Mija”: Cuco, the bedroom-pop sensation Doris is managing at the beginning of the film, and Jacks Haupt, a Chicana teenager from Dallas obsessed with Amy Winehouse and Lana Del Rey who Doris scouts on Instagram.
The performance scenes that dot the film sway under dreamy multicolored lights, highlighting the escapist qualities of the music while using the relative sizes of venues and crowds to show where Cuco and Jacks are in their careers. Behind-the-scenes glimpses of 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 moves, and chew her out on speakerphone more than once during her big career-making trip to L.A. Through it all, Doris stands in the background, feeling responsible for everyone and everything.