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Gregory Nava's My Family (Mi Familia), a multigenerational epic about a Chicano family in east Los Angeles, is one of the most satisfying dramas I've ever seen.

The narrative follows the changing fortunes of the Sanchez family from the early part of the century through the late 1970s. It begins with the family's future patriarch, Jose Sanchez (Jacob Vargas), living in Mexico. One day he decides to visit a relative in Los Angeles; not having any concept of how far away California is, he decides to walk the distance on foot, resulting in the first of the picture's many nods to magical realism. Once in L.A., he decides to stay, hooks up with his future wife, Maria (Jennifer Lopez), and in no time they're creating a large and diverse family of boys and girls.

Nava's large cast is superb. Vargas and Lopez as the young Jose and Maria, and Eduardo Lopez Rojas and Jenny Gago as their older incarnations, manage to create uneducated, humble characters without ever seeming to condescend to them. As the dapper gang leader Chucho, Esai Morales, an electrifying actor who rarely works as often as he should, gives a definitive sensitive-bad-boy performance. Edward James Olmos brings weary wit to his role as Paco, the writer in the family; his voice-over narration is understated and often uproariously funny, which tends to put the more overblown stretches of melodrama into proper perspective. But in a cast of some four dozen outstanding performances, two tower over the rest: Jimmy Smits as Jimmy Sanchez, who witnessed the shooting death of a sibling as a child and never came to terms with it; and Elpidia Carrillo as Isabel Magnana, a housekeeper and the daughter of a prominent Central American labor agitator. Their story concerns Jimmy marrying Isabel to keep her from being deported into the arms of her family's political enemies. Jimmy, who agrees to wed Isabel only because his sister asks him to, assumes that Isabel will want a divorce soon afterward, so he shows no interest in committing himself to their union.

But Isabel is a stubborn woman who believes that they have an obligation to make the marriage work. What follows is a hesitant courtship between two deeply wounded souls. When they finally do make a connection, during a long, frenetic, ultimately life-affirming street dance, it's the most rapturous meeting of two broken hearts I've seen on-screen in quite some time.

Nava, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anne Thomas, empathizes with every one of his characters, and his love of the textures of blue-collar Chicano life -- crowded streets, box-like homes, packed dance halls -- finds brilliant expression in Edward Lachman's vibrant photography and Barry Robinson's intricately messy production design.

It's difficult to imagine anyone from any background sitting through My Family and not being moved. The film is a masterwork of populist storytelling that manages to be simultaneously epic and intimate, artful and accessible. All the big events in life are represented -- friendships, fights, courtships, breakups, marriages, births, deaths, confessions, even a ghost or two -- along with plenty of smaller ones. My Family is like an old, ragged, but absurdly comfortable piece of clothing. You slip into it, hug yourself and smile, wondering how anything so simple could be so perfect.

-- Matt Zoller Seitz

 
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