A Yankee teacher crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. gets into hot water while his smart-alecky daughter lounges in the back seat in Sun Belt Express, a rough-and-tumble but occasionally very funny indie comedy from director Evan Buxbaum. More successful when aiming for laughs than when it’s trying to say something important about illegal immigration or the fraught relationship between a divorced father and his teenage offspring, this is nonetheless directed with enough flashes of directorial flair to at least warrant play at smaller events, such as the recent Champs-Elysees Festival in Paris, before migrating to VOD platforms.
Allen King (Tate Donovan) teaches philosophy at a university in Mexico but lives in Arizona and has difficulties making ends meet, at least partly because he has to pay child support to his ex-wife, the senatorial candidate Margaret (Rachael Harris), for the education and needs of his 16-year-old, Emily (India Ennenga). The precociously bright girl lives with her mother, with whom she shares not a single political conviction, but adores her father, as evidenced by the fact that she carries around the fat academic tome he’s written, which she’s read from cover to cover.
Allen has to cross a tiny and sleepy U.S.-Mexican border post every day to go to work and again when he drives back home, so it doesn’t come as a great surprise that when he desperately needs some dough to pay for child support, he finds himself transporting Mexicans into the U.S. in the trunk of his baby-blue Volvo for the oily Ramon (Miguel Sandoval), a taqueria mogul who’s living the American Dream and is making a lot of money by illegally transporting his fellow compatriots to the Land of Opportunity.
Things get complicated — and, frankly, a lot more fun — when Emily comes along on the one day Allen’s forced to accept a last job, loading up his trunk with an assortment of immigrants that includes a Mexican teaching colleague of Allen’s (Ana de la Reguera) as well as several Mexican men who all have to be picked up at different places.
The protagonist’s sad-sack status, the thorny family dynamics and his unusual extracurricular activities are all pretty standard-issue things that Buxbaum conveys adequately but lack a real spark that would ignite active audience involvement. However, when his car starts to fill up and the camera gives audiences extended scenes of what’s discussed in the dark of the trunk — which, courtesy of some movie magic, isn’t all that dark and is surprisingly spacious and completely isolated from noise — the movie turns into something very spirited and quick-witted. Unfortunately, the banter rarely directly comments on the prickly issues surrounding immigration.
That said, the horizontal sidekicks really are the main attraction of the film, and when Buxbaum and co-writers Chance Mullen and Gregorio Castro have to tie up all their loose ends during a showdown at Ramon’s flagship restaurant, the unnamed charges disappear into the background and the film unfortunately drifts back into autopilot again.
Donovan (Argo, Good Night and Good Luck) is believable as a loser trying to do the right thing, even if he struggles to suggest that someone who teaches Kant‘s views on moral duty would himself have no qualms about dealing with the clearly unsavory Ramon. As his daughter, Ennenga (Treme) is convincingly plucky but similarly lacks that spark of innate intuitiveness that would make some of her wise-girl comebacks feel natural rather than overly written and studied. The Mexican supporting cast, headed by Arturo Castro and Oscar Avila, fares a lot better with their less intelligent and way saltier characters.
Cinematographer Luke Geissbuhler tries to make the most of the desert locations, even if the some of the footage couldn’t quite handle big-screen projection at the screening. The rest of the technical credits are adequate.
Production companies: RGB Media, Alberio Films, Lola’s Productions, Theatre in a Trunk
Cast: Tate Donovan, India Ennenga, Rachael Harris, Ana de la Reguera, Emma Ramos, Miguel Sandoval, Arturo Castro, Oscar Avila
Director: Evan Buxbaum
Screenwriters: Evan Buxbaum, Chance Mullen, Gregorio Castro
Producers: Iyabo Boyd, Evan Buxbaum, Arun Kumar, Noah Lang
Executive producers: Robert Buxbaum, Bradford Coleman
Director of photography: Luke Geissbuhler
Production designer: R.A. Arancio-Parrain
Costume designer: Allyson Traub
Editor: Beth Moran
No rating, 85 minutes