Oh sure, I remembered Steve Zahn from his early career appearance in Reality Bites. However, it was in the underappreciated 1999 gem Happy, Texas that I really looked at Steve Zahn and thought to myself "This guy is something special."
While Zahn has made his share of questionable choices, Strange Wilderness anyone, the truth is that Zahn remains one of Hollywood's most underrated actors. Occasionally, a film comes along that reminds us just how special Zahn can be.
Gringa is such a film.
Gringa centers around Marge Bickford (Jess Gabor), a socially isolated teenager whose single mother (Judy Greer) is a realtor who keeps them on the move providing little, if any, stability for Marge. Soccer would be an escape for Marge, however, she's seemingly not quite good enough and endures enough harassment from coach and teammates that she's got a festering eating disorder. When her mother dies in a car accident, Marge decides she's not about to go live with the grandparents in Scottsdale and high-tails it to Mexico in search of her estranged father, Jackson (Steve Zahn), a former soccer star now coaching a women's soccer team while drowning in a drinking problem. He's not father material, but he's all she's got.
Gringa is for sure a messy film. The script by Patrick Hasburgh tries to cover an awful lot of territory, however, the ensemble cast is a winning one and this is Zahn's best performance in awhile and he's fully invested here. Even when the dialogue is stretching, Zahn is bringing his A-game here and it's fun watching this gifted actor take a mid-range film and give it a real spark.
Picked up by indie distributor Gravitas Ventures, Gringa opened in limited nationwide release on April 21st after a successful festival run that included prizes at Breckenridge Festival of Film (Audience Award, Feature Film), Durango Film Festival (Audience Award, Narrative Feature), Gasparilla International Film Festival (Audience Award, Narrative Feature and Best Performance for Gabor), Whistler Film Festival (Audience Award, Narrative Feature), and Lady Filmmakers Film Festival (Feature Film). Co-directed by Marny Eng and E.J. Foerster, Gringa is definitely designed as a crowdpleaser and it is, indeed, a definitely crowdpleaser of a film.
For most of its running time, Gringa is a little too laid back for its own good. While the film approaches serious subject matter, it mostly skims the surface and never digs deep enough to become the truly emotionally resonant film it could have been. Gringa satisfies but Gringa could have been a much better film.
It's the ensemble that really brings Gringa to life. While Zahn is likely the most recognizable name here, except for Judy Greer's far too brief appearance, I think even Zahn would have to agree that Jess Gabor runs away with the film as a complex young woman dealing with major life obstacles with grit and grace and determination. While Zahn's Jackson is underdeveloped on paper, Zahn knows exactly what to do here and he does it all beautifully. Zahn's Jackson is a likable drunk, most likely alcoholic, who knows he lost his career and family to alcohol and drinks away the misery of it all. He's built himself a life of sorts but it's fun watching him discover the potential for even more. Valentina Buzzurro also shines as Azusana despite also being saddled with a rather paper thin character.
Lensing by Peter Wilke keeps us immersed even when the film gets a tad histrionic. Tim Williams's original score fits rather nicely and sets a nice rhythm to companion the film's varying tonal shifts.
While Gringa isn't a perfect film, it's a perfectly enjoyable film featuring top-notch performances by Gabor and Zahn and a story that keeps you rooting for everything to work out even if the emotional investment never quite becomes what it ought to be. There's a reason that Gringa picked up multiple audience awards along its festival journey - with a story that inspires and a winning ensemble, Gringa is built to be a crowdpleaser and please it most certainly does.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic