Review: INTO THE DARK: CULTURE SHOCK, An Attempt To Wake Up From An American Nightmare
America is a nation at war with itself. Just like a distressingly ballooning number of countries around the world, the United States is growing ideologically fractured at an alarming rate. The political middle is dropping away almost entirely in favor of radical let wing and reactionary right wing political movements who don't see each other as opponents, or people with different outlooks on a common struggle to be better, but rather as enemies.
Among the most serious of the issues dividing this country is that of immigration, and primarily immigration from Latin America. "Illegal immigrants", or undocumented migrants, have been putting their own lives at risk to come to the United States for decades, and for the last thirty years, at least, have been vilified by the far right conservatives as having brought everything from disease, to violence, to drugs, to terrorism with them from their homelands south of the border.
Today, as families flee Latin American countries looking for better lives in the United States, the vast majority aren't looking to cause trouble, they are looking to America as the great beacon of hope. Unfortunately, the political climate for the last three decades has painted them all with a very broad brush as - in the words of our unfortunate president - "criminals, drug dealers, and rapists", making it very easy to dehumanize them, leading to the abominable crisis at the border we see today.
In film media, there hasn't been much in the way of representation of this plight that has been worth a damn. Films like Steven Soderbergh's Traffic and Denis Villaneuve's Sicario have attempted to tackle the issue, but with all the nuance of a ballpeen hammer, doing little to address the people caught in the middle of the "war on drugs". Which is why director Gigi Saul Guerrero's debut feature, Culture Shock is so important and necessary in these troubled times.
What Guerrero brings to the table with her film, the latest in Blumhouse's Into the Dark series on Hulu, is a sense of the reality from both sides of the conflict. A Mexican-Canadian filmmaker, Guerrero has worked with Luchagore Productions on the web-series La Quinceñera as well as having contributed to other Mexican horror and genre productions over the last several years. With Culture Shock, Guerrero directly addresses the crisis at the border in a way that is both entertaining and insightful, the latter being a desperately needed element of the conversation these days.
The story of a Mexican woman named Marisol (Martha Higareda) desperate to immigrate to the United States to escape the poverty and danger of her home, Culture Shock is a nightmare scenario that feels sadly plausible these days. The first half of the film follows Marisol as she attempts to arrange her crossing with a deadbeat boyfriend and then a swindling coyote (a person who smuggles desperate migrants across the border for money). Most of the action takes place in the dead of night, as anything that can go wrong for Marisol, does.
She's double crossed by her man, ripped off by the coyote, stumbles upon an unfortunate little boy to whom she feels a kinship, only to have everything she hoped to hang on to torn from her. She awakens in the second half of the film in an idyllic American community having no idea how she ended up there. She appears to be the house help (servant) of Betty (Barbara Crampton), who helps her acclimate to her new brightly colored pastel surroundings. The town is getting ready to celebrate the Fourth of July, but something isn't quite right for Marisol, and she very quickly realizes that nothing is what it seems. Now, she must find a way out of this nightmare before she's trapped forever, but the truth is far stranger and more malevolent than she could've imagined.
Culture Shock is a tough film to review without giving up several crucial plot points that would definitely qualify as spoilers for most people. However, it is also perhaps one of the hardest hitting attacks on the insanity of the United States' border policy I've ever seen, and certainly the toughest in recent memory. The film nails what it is like to be not only an immigrant in this country in 2019, but any minority at all, citizenship status be damned.
Guerrero's take on the struggle of Latin American migrants, and Mexicans in particular, and the challenges they face to fit in is spot on. Whereas many Americans take pride in the idea of the country as a "melting pot" in which different cultures come to settle and commingle while retaining their own identities and traditions from their homelands, in recent years the movement to "Make America Great Again", seems to want to erase that idea.
What Culture Shock does is to illustrate what it looks like from the perspective of the immigrant. Marisol is appreciated and accepted into her new Utopian surroundings as long as she sheds her own culture and assimilates into the idealized American culture personified by Crampton's Betty and her cohorts, Mayor Thomas (Shawn Ashmore) and others. When Marisol confronts other immigrants in the town who've drunk the Kool-Aid - so to speak - she discovers that they've left their own identities behind in order to keep the peace. This is a feeling that I know all too well as a child of an immigrant parent who was scared to even teach me Spanish as a child for fear that it would alienate me from my classmates. A fear that has been realized in the increasing verbal and physical attacks on immigrant students in the fallout of the 2016 presidential election.
One of the main arguments against increasing immigration quotas in the United States from Mexico is the myth that Mexican immigrants are a drain on social services in this country. In reality, the opposite is true. While there are some services that are available to undocumented immigrants, those working in the US without proper documentation actually contribute to their local economies in ways that very few people even recognize. What this means is that rather than being a drain on American taxpayer revenue, it's actually the United States economy that is draining them, an idea that is very well expressed in Culture Shock, though you'll have to watch it for yourself to see the details, lest I spoil the thing.
A kick in the ass and one of the first genre features to address the real world nightmare of America's broken immigration system and its causes and effects on real people on both sides of the border, Culture Shock is an absolute must see. Guerrero is not only a talented writer and director who handles her performers with aplomb and tells exactly the story she needs to tell, she is also a truly ballsy storyteller with no fear. Culture Shock is the film we need right now; a film to tell those who've been victimized that we see them, and to tell those in power that we see them, too.