Movie Review: A “Gringa” teen finds her dad, and her soccer game South of the Border

“Gringa” is an intensely likeable coming-of-age dramedy trapped in an over-reaching screenplay, an entirely-too-tidy tale that works best when it’s unkempt, scruffy and a bit crumpled.

It’s built on a winning performance by Jess Gabor of TV’s “Shameless,” and features engaging turns by the reliably adorable character actors Judy Greer and Steve Zahn, with a warm supporting performance by Roselyn Sanchez to recommend it.

What goes wrong? Read on.

It’s a simple sports drama about a struggling, unpopular teen who has nicknamed herself “Large Marge.” She’s not noticed in high school, eats alone in the cafeteria and compounds that by blunders on the soccer pitch.

It’s not like her only friend is her dog, “Puker.” But when mom (Greer) is an attractive, single real estate agent in the habit of bedding her clients in the condos she and Marge are “squatting” in “to save money,” it’s not like anybody’s going out of their way to get close to her.

Mom? She’s a walking, talking motivational poster.

“Today’s your day! Go TAKE it!”

The kid (Tomas Ruiz) who wears eye shadow to his job at her favorite fast food joint might be the one classmate she considers a close friend, but the script barely has him in the movie before A) her Mom is killed in an accident, B) her bitter grandparents from Scottsdale show up to take her home and C) she finds out that the father she never knew is wasting away is Mexican Margueritaville.

On an impulse, she loots her mother’s wrecked car at the impound lot, gives away her dog to Fast Food Brad and makes her way to the border. She’s going to Lo de Marcos.

That’s where Jackson (Zahn), a former professional soccer player who quickly fell into the bottle, is a local character, local handyman/trash collector, local “surfer dude” and village drunk.

But he’s the gringo half of the coaching staff of the local girl’s soccer team. The good padre head coach (Jorge A. Jimenez) puts up with his boozing and profanity as a sort of project.

And now the drunk has a teenager to take care of.

“When did you get a daughter?” “I ordered her a long time ago and she just got here.”

Sanchez plays the cantina manager who puts up with the drunk, maybe even lets him call her his “novia,” and doesn’t let him shirk the otherwise-orphaned hija who shows up at his door.

Marge will try to surf, and learn “Nobody surfs the first day.” She will get the attention of the local 20ish hunk (Nico Bracewell). She will try to fit in with as the disdained “gringa” on dad’s soccer club.

And as Dad binge-drinks, she will binge-eat. “Large Marge” is how she sees herself, after all.

This Patrick Hasburgh script bites off a few serious subjects — alcoholism, grief, an eating disorder and the “undocumented” folks trying to cross the border — and burdens a pleasant if too lightweight formula sports movie with them.

It’s OK to want to add a little weight to your sweet nothing of a movie. But the shifts in tone are jarring, especially in a movie as predictable as this one.

Surfing and soccer, grief and body image issues, addiction and immigration, all of these are plausible plot elements to saddle on a movie at this time and at this locale.

But there are so many that they clash and make the picture grind its gears every time it convinces you how charming it might be. It’s got one of the sweetest quinceneara scenes I’ve seen and a few father-daughter bonding moments, even nice mother-daughter interactions are always erased by something abrupt, under-scripted or just off.

Eliminate a “complication” or two and there was a cute character dramedy in her that this cast could have made work.

Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations, alcohol abuse, profanity

Cast: Jess Gabor, Steve Zahn, Nico Bracewell, Valentina Buzzurro, Roselyn Sanchez and Judy Greer.

Credits: Marny Eng and E.J. Foerster, scripted by Patrick Hasburgh. A Gravitas Ventures release.

Running time: 1:42


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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