Review: ‘Yellow Rose,’ starring Eva Noblezada, Dale Watson, Princess Punzalan and Lea Salonga

October 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eva Noblezada and Dale Watson in “Yellow Rose” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films)

“Yellow Rose”

Directed by Diane Paragas

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Texas, the dramatic film “Yellow Rose” has a cast of Filipino and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager, who’s a talented country singer/songwriter, has her life turned upside down when her widowed mother, who’s an undocumented immigrant, is arrested by immigration authorities.

Culture Audience: “Yellow Rose” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about aspiring artists and the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States. 

Princess Punzalan and Eva Noblezada in “Yellow Rose” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films)

There used to be a time when movies rarely showed the issues faced by undocumented immigrant children of undocumented immigrants in America. But with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act, also known as the Dreamer Act, fiercely debated in a country that’s politically divided over immigration laws, these children’s stories have more urgency than ever before in American history. And even when these stories are depicted in a movie with fictional characters, such as “Yellow Rose,” they give people an idea of the very real effects that DACA and other immigration legislation have on human beings.

Directed by Diane Paragas, “Yellow Rose” tells the story of Rose Garcia (played by Eva Noblezada), a Filipina teenager who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Rose lives in suburban Texas with her widowed mother Priscilla Garcia (played by Princess Punzalan), who works as a live-in maid at a run-down motel. Priscilla and Rose are undocumented immigrants who could be deported, which Rose finds out the hard way later in this story. Paragas wrote the “Yellow Rose” screenplay with Annie Howell and Celena Cipriaso.

Rose is an introverted person who expresses her emotions through her singing, guitar playing and songwriting. She loves country music and is a very talented artist, but Rose hides her talent because she’s too shy to perform in public. She’s also limited by being underage and not having the funds or resources that she thinks she would need if she wanted to become a professional country singer. Therefore, Rose has resigned herself to thinking of her music activities as a “hobby.”

Priscilla and Rose are still grieving over the death of Rose’s father, whose cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. In one of the first scenes in “Yellow Rose,” Priscilla tells Rose that when Rose was a baby, Rose’s father used to play guitar and sing to Rose to get her to go to sleep. Rose says to her mother about their life in near-poverty: “Mom, this isn’t the life you wanted.” Her mother replies, “It doesn’t matter. It will be better for you. I promise.”

Rose is at an age where she wants more independence. She gets around by bicycle, and her mother sometimes admonishes Rose for going to places without telling her where she’s going. It’s mentioned in the movie that Rose is in high school, but the movie never shows her in school and gives no indication of what type of student she is. However, one thing is clear at the beginning of the movie: Rose doesn’t have any friends, and her mother is the most important person in her life.

One day, when Rose is at a local store that sells musical instruments, she has a brief conversation with a store clerk named Elliot Blatnik (played by Liam Booth), who is a few years older than Rose and obviously attracted to her. Elliot knows her as a guitar customer, so he asks Rose if he can hear her play sometime. Rose shyly tells him there’s very little chance of that happening.

Elliot then asks Rose if she’s interested in going to a concert with him in Austin, which is several miles away. Rose tells him that she can’t go because her overprotective mother probably won’t let her. Elliot then tells Rose that it’s not a date and that they would be going with a group of his friends. (As soon as he says that, you know he’s probably lying, but he wants Rose to feel comfortable with going to the concert with him.)

Rose says she’ll ask her mother. Elliot seems like a gentleman, and he agrees to have dinner at Rose’s place so he can meet her mother and assure her that Rose will be safe with him. The dinner goes well and Priscilla gives Rose permission to go to the concert, as long as she is back home at a reasonable time. Sure enough, there are no other “friends” who are going on this road trip. It’s just Elliot and Rose.

Even though Rose is aware that Elliot is attracted to her, she wants their relationship to be platonic, and he respects that wish. Rose and Elliot have fake IDs that get them into the 21-and-over nightclub. And they immediately start drinking alcohol in the club. Elliot and Rose get comfortable with each other and have a good time dancing together and with other people.

While hanging out near a jukebox before the headlining act goes on stage, a tipsy Rose is deciding what to play, when a white-haired man strikes up a conversation with her. They begin talking about Willie Nelson, and the man is impressed that Rose knows so much about Nelson and country music in general. He tells Rose that he didn’t think “someone like you” would be such a fan of country music. Instead of being offended by this racially tinged comment, Rose cheerfully replies, “There are all kinds of fans.”

Elliot walks up just as the conversation ends and the white-haired man is walking away. A star-struck Elliot tells Rose that she was just talking to Dale Watson, one of the show’s performers. (Watson portrays himself in the movie.)

Wait, isn’t Rose supposed to be a country music aficionado? How could she not know she was talking to one of the performers she was there to see? It’s a minor plot hole that doesn’t really affect the story overall, but it’s an example of how there could’ve been improvements in the story’s screenplay.

Although it’s not made completely obvious in the movie, Rose is the only person of color in the entire audience. However, she doesn’t get curious stares or rude comments, which would a more realistic scenario in this situation. On the other hand, it’s Austin, which is one of the most liberal big cities in Texas. 

Still, this movie’s biggest flaw is how unrealistically it shows how everyone Rose encounters in the country music community is immediately accepting of Rose, when we all know that there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t accept her because of her race. She might not have people doing overtly cruel things to her, but she would definitely be stared at, shunned, and looked at by some racist people as a “freak” who doesn’t deserve to be a country star just because she isn’t white. 

Later in the movie, Rose reveals to someone that she got the nickname Yellow Rose when she was younger and had entered a talent contest where she sang country music. The nickname has a double meaning: It could refer to the famous song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Or, as Rose implies when she tells this story, she was called that name because of the racially derogatory meaning that the world “yellow” has when it’s used to describe an Asian person. The movie’s title is a way of reclaiming that name in a context of praise.

In addition to not properly acknowledging the racial barriers that exist in country music, the movie could have been more realistic in depicting sexism in country music. Many of today’s country radio stations blatantly discriminate against women, by having policies that limit the number of female artists who can be played on the radio. It’s also no coincidence that most new female country artists have to look a certain way (in other words, have sex appeal) in order to get a recording contract.

Rose being underage would also be an issue for how she’s marketed and the types of nightclubs where she could perform. All of these issues are not adequately addressed in the movie when it becomes obvious that certain people want to help Rose break into the country music industry.

Whether or not Rose gets her big break in country music is secondary to the problems that she faces when she comes home from the concert with Elliot and sees her mother being arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Rose ends up grabbing her own most valuable and essential possessions and running away from the motel because she doesn’t want to be placed in the foster care system. She’s scared and confused because her late father was a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Rose assumed that his citizenship status applied to her and her mother Priscilla.

Days later, when Rose finally gets a chance to talk to her mother, who calls from an ICE detention center, Priscilla admits that they have been living as undocumented immigrants. Her mother, who will probably be deported, apologizes for lying to Rose about their immigration status. Rose’s feelings of sadness are compounded by anger because she hates that she was deliberately kept in the dark about this life-changing issue.

Priscilla then begs Rose to go live with Priscilla’s estranged younger sister Gail (played by Lea Salonga), who is married to an American and has a young daughter. It will be the first time that Rose will meet Gail. When Rose goes to Gail’s address that was provided by Priscilla, Rose is shocked to find out that Gail is living a very comfortable upper-middle-class life, and Gail’s spacious and upscale home isn’t far from the dumpy motel where Priscilla and Rose were living.

Gail is reluctant to talk about why she and her sister Priscilla became estranged, and will only say vaguely that they drifted apart. Still, Rose expresses some anger and disappointment that Gail never bothered to help her and Priscilla when they needed it. Gail tells Rose that she can live with her and her family if her husband says it’s okay.

The rest of the story shows Rose’s tumultuous experiences as she deals with the stresses of her mother’s probable deportation and Rose’s own precarious immigration status. Priscilla asks Rose to go back to the Philippines with her. Rose has to decide whether she will go with her mother or stay in the United States, the only home she’s ever really known. It isn’t made clear what age Rose was when her parents immigrated to the United States, but it was at an age when she was too young to remember living in the Philippines.

Noblezada, who is known as a star of the Broadway musicals “Miss Saigon” (which also starred Salonga) and “Hadestown,” makes an admirable feature-film debut as Rose, who goes through a lot of traumatic experiences in this film. Rose has some people who are willing to help, but there’s only so much they can do because her status as an underage, undocumented immigrant is limiting a lot of her options. Noblezada obviously has the talent to handle the musical aspects of the movie, but she also proves that she can adeptly handle the dramatic acting too.

All of the supporting actors are also very good in their roles, but the movie’s heart and soul is with Rose. Watson and Paragas wrote the original songs in the “Yellow Rose” soundtrack, and they’re all quite good and fairly memorable. “Square Peg,” the soundtrack’s first single, is the obvious standout. (Rose sings parts of the song several times throughout the movie.)

Overall, “Yellow Rose” gives an emotionally effective portrayal of how Dreamer children in the U.S. can be caught in terrible situations over their immigration/citizenship status and possible separation from their parents or other family members. The movie takes a critical look at the system without being exploitative of the devastation that happens when situations like the ones depicted in the movie happen in real life. “Yellow Rose” falters when it glosses over the rampant discrimination issues in country music, but the overall message of the film is that standing up to oppression is better than doing nothing at all.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 Films released “Yellow Rose” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020.