I've never been to Austin, Texas, but after seeing Yellow Rose, I almost feel like I have. The city has played host to dozens of movie productions over the years. Rarely, though, does one exude so much of its uniqueness. Every shot envelops you in an Austin-y vibe. That's just one of the qualities that makes this heartfelt little indie notable. By using authentic locations and people, it almost plays like a documentary about a young woman living a hardscrabble life and dreaming of something more.
Broadway actress Eva Noblezada, in a scorching motion picture debut, is Rose, a Filipina teen living with her mother in a tiny Texas town. When her mom, who's in America illegally, gets put in a deportation center, Rose has to make a choice. One option is living with her affluent aunt Gail (Lea Salonga). She tries that and it doesn't go well. The other is to run away to Austin and pursue her dreams of becoming a country singer. That's the one she picks, although her mother repeatedly begs her to return to Gail's, since living on her own could cause her to be detained by ICE, too.
Rose befriends Jolene (Libby Villari), one of the owners of The Broken Spoke, a country-western bar. She allows the girl to stay in a room in the back. More importantly, Libby introduces her to Dale Watson (portraying a semi-fictionalized version of himself), a once-big music star coming down the back side of his career. He becomes a friend, a mentor, and eventually a father figure to Rose – not that he wants to be that last one. They begin collaborating on music together, as she grapples with the reality of what's happened to her mother.
Yellow Rose absolutely addresses the issue of illegal or undocumented immigrants that has been the subject of much conversation in America over the last few years. It does so with compassion, yet also a semblance of subtlety. That's part of the film, which by and large is about the things that drive Rose to chase her aspirations and influence the songs she writes. To say the story is political would be an inaccurate statement, even if it does touch on the human cost of deporting people who work hard and try to make decent lives for themselves.
The bigger picture is Rose's journey. Generally left to her own devices, she scrambles to survive, getting by on the kindness of strangers and a bit of undeniable talent. What makes her arc work – aside from Noblezada's endearing performance – is the way writer/director Diane Paragas brings Austin to life around her. The Broken Spoke is a real place. Dale Watson is an actual music veteran. By maximizing such authenticity at every turn, it's easier for us to become engrossed in Rose's efforts to outrun ICE and get her musical career off the ground.
Yellow Rose has a romantic subplot between Rose and a young man that doesn't quite register as meaningfully as everything else. There are, however, a handful of really cool songs to go along with the first-rate performances. Eva Noblezada is the real deal – someone we instantly care about, want to follow, and endlessly root for. She's the best thing in a movie filled with heart and soul.
out of four
Yellow Rose is rated PG-13 for some strong language, and teen drinking. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.