What We Leave Behind 2022 Movie Review
In her feature debut (winner of both the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award and the Fandor New Voices Award at this year’s South by Southwest), director and assistant professor at UT-Austin Iliana Sosa offers an intimate portrait of a family separated by distance but united in love, and a moving exploration of the many metaphorical meanings of “crossing over.”
The central subject, Sosa’s grandpa Julián, is an almost-nonagenarian who hails from San Juan del Río in rural Mexico and has worked hard his whole life to provide and keep his seven children connected after his wife, their mother, died when they were young. Julián has traveled by bus every single month for decades to visit them in the United States, and the film opens with his final ride. He is simply too old now to continue the arduous journey. (For perspective, his hometown is over 800 miles south of Austin.)
He returns to continue building (with help) a cinder block house for whichever descendants want to come home, and he shares a small bedroom with his son Jorge, who is blind. As Sosa asks “Grandpa” questions only a granddaughter could, she paints his memoir.
“The other side” takes on multiple connotations as Julián shares memories of crossing the U.S. border starting in the 1960s through the Bracero Program, of his beloved wife as a young girl carrying water jugs from the river, and ultimately, of her death. The deep wrinkles of his time-weathered face reinforce that living a long life is hard work, but it’s also a great fortune.
Simple scenes filmed with reverence and Sosa’s brilliant eye for light and angles elevate daily routines to visual poetry: crowing roosters silhouetted in sunset; conversations around a vibrant, oilcloth-covered table; “how’s it going over there” phone calls; skilled hands creating lovely handiwork and mourning flowers; Pinto the dog chasing a pickup down a dirt road; and Julián swatting the relentless house flies (“They’re prophets, the little bastards,” he says). An impromptu song with Tecate in hand is bittersweet.
And though it’s never overtly mentioned, and not even the point of the film, Sosa’s perspective as a first-generation Mexican American woman is sorely needed in the larger conversations around borders, family, and what it means to straddle cultures, languages, and time. This special time capsule is one most people wish they had of their own grandparent, so if you’re lucky enough, ask questions and learn about their life while they’re still on this side.