Para Ellos

By Christian Contreras and Victoria De La Torre | Drama
A Mexican girl is guided by 3 desert creatures on a journey to find her missing father.

As the oldest film school in the U.S. — and the alma mater of filmmakers as accomplished and diverse as George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ryan Coogler and Rian Johnson — USC Cinematic Arts established a reputation for skilled craftsmanship, rich community and compelling storytelling. This week we spotlight their newest generation of filmmakers, working in a wide range of genres and styles.

Maria is a smart, caring and determined 10-year-old girl who deeply loves her father, as well as the bedtime stories he tells her and her little brother Juan.

But one night her father goes missing, so Maria and Juan set off across the desert towards the U.S. border in hopes of finding him and bringing him home. On the way, they are aided and guided by three curious, mystical desert creatures, who imbue the journey with magic and just a little menace.

But all the magic in the world cannot disguise the fact that their journey is a dangerous one, and that Maria and Juan’s father, and the children who follow him, are in grave peril as they race across the desert at night.

Equal parts whimsical, charming and powerfully emotional, this children’s fantasy short — written and directed by Christian Contreras and Victoria De La Torre — from pulls in magical realism, live-action puppetry and enchanting storytelling to offer a unique slant on a very grown-up issue.

Its heritage clearly draws upon the classics of children’s fables, offering up a plucky, resourceful main character who must adventure into the unknown. But the innovative script injects those tropes with the often overlooked experience of child immigrants, who are equally as powered by a deep longing to be with the people they belong to. Maria and Juan’s driving desire is to find their father, and their quest drives them into the darkness of the desert at night.

As a fantasy fable, the craftsmanship adds a look and feel to the film that is both earthily naturalistic and vividly imaginative. The beautifully rich cinematography captures both the textured, rough-hewn world that the children live in, as well as the expressionistic, almost mythic nighttime desert.

Within both these worlds, the charming puppets that make up the small cadre of mystical desert creatures fit in perfectly. Artfully imagined and rendered, these aren’t cute adorable sidekicks familiar to children’s television, but instead have a shrewdness and uncanniness that helps the story and characters explore the darker, scarier emotions that arise. As they progress in the story and face ever higher stakes, Maria and Juan will need all the help and guidance they can muster as it becomes clear just what they’re facing.

Like the great stories of children’s literature, “Para Ellos” doesn’t shy from difficult terrain. It leverages the rich imagination and emotional directness of kids to train a new lens onto the fraught topic of immigration. In doing so, it frames the experience of children like Maria and Juan at the center, and doesn’t anesthetize or downplay the sadder events of the story. Instead, the frame of the children’s fable reminds us just what is at stake during these dangerous journeys, and just what a tragedy it is to keep families apart.

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