The story chronicled in director Josh Polon’s documentary feature MexMan ought to be a triumphant one – a quintessentially American tale of a gifted person overcoming adversity on the way to well-deserved success, and one particularly suited to our troubled times, at that.
When we meet the film’s subject, a young Mexican immigrant named Germán Alonso, this appears to be exactly the path he’s been primed for. Germán has an obvious talent for filmmaking, a boundless creative energy, a wonderfully supportive family, and – perhaps the rarest thing of all – a tangible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make good on his Hollywood dream, backed by a producer who sincerely seems to want him to realize his potential. For a time, it seems as if Polon is setting up one of the great stand-up-and-cheer movie-industry underdog sagas of all time.
That MexMan turns out not to be that story – or, at least, not the version that a viewer’s introduction to Germán might anticipate – is what makes the film such a fascinating, emotionally moving, and resonant experience.
“…a heady mix of magical realism, comic-book heroics, and social commentary – signals a potentially visionary creative voice….”
MexMan functions as both a behind-the-scenes drama about fledgling filmmakers tackling a make-or-break project and a character study of Germán himself and while the former is certainly compelling, it’s the latter that makes the film truly stand out. To call MexMan‘s central figure unique is an understatement. From the opening moments, which provide some intriguing glimpses of the hybrid live-action/animated short films Germán made as a teenager and as a USC student – not to mention the Henson-esque puppet studio he’s created in a rented airport hangar – it’s clear that this is a guy who’s living in a weird and wonderful world all his own. Endlessly chatty and energetic, self-deprecating but confident and extremely imaginative, he comes off as exactly the type of personality that could flourish creatively in the film industry.
That impression is shared by a group of Germán’s film-school classmates as well as Hollywood producer Moctesuma Esparza, who sees in Germán’s thesis film MexMan the basis of a promising feature debut. Esparza’s enthusiasm makes sense; even as a no-budget short, the MexMan project – a colorful, heady mix of magical realism, comic-book heroics, and social commentary – signals a potentially visionary creative voice, and it’s easy to see why the producer promises to fund the effort to turn it into a feature, provided that Germán and his team can deliver two produced scenes and a finished script as proof-of-concept. This challenge makes for the documentary’s dramatic backbone, and Polon’s fly-on-the-wall approach captures the entire process.
To spoil too many of the reasons why MexMan – the Germán Alonso-directed feature film MexMan, that is – isn’t currently playing multiplexes would do a disservice to Polon’s sympathetic and exceedingly fair handling of the material, which delves painfully but non-judgmentally into the personal issues that come to hold Germán back. Suffice it to say that, as engaging as he is, Germán suffers from a tendency to get consumed by his other fixations; while he’s channeling some deep-seated longing and hurt into another passion project that’s entirely separate from MexMan, he becomes increasingly at odds with the more focused and conventionally professional collaborators there to help him achieve his big break. Eventually, the crew begins to wrest control of the project from Germán a little bit at a time, and while the film is squarely on his side, their objections to his behavior aren’t entirely unreasonable – and the clashes that arise are all but inevitable.
“…a fascinating, emotionally moving, and resonant experience.”
Those tense moments both on-set and off (some involving character actor Jason Beghe, who Germán and company are able to wrangle into their spec scene), as well as the personal frustrations not only of Germán but also of everyone else involved in MexMan‘s production, can make for uncomfortable viewing, but that speaks largely to the compassion that Polon engenders toward his subject. This isn’t a film that’s out to have a laugh at the expense of an inept, Tommy Wiseau-like figure who likely has no real business being on a movie set. Instead, it’s an honest, warts-and-all portrayal of the difficulties that even filmmakers with honest-to-god talent face, and how those struggles can be cripplingly exacerbated by a creator’s own personal demons – which, of course, often go hand in hand with that person’s artistic drive.
It’s in that push-and-pull shown between Germán’s obvious strengths and the frustration – and, ultimately, empathy – that one feels in seeing him unable to get out of his own way that MexMan most powerfully connects. This is an excellent documentary, made with care and concern and refreshing evenhandedness. After experiencing it, one is bound to wish that someday, Germán himself will have the opportunity to make a movie that surprises and touches and tugs at the heartstrings of viewers the way this film about him does.
MexMan (2018). Directed by Josh Polon. Written by Josh Polon and Alex MacKenzie. Starring Germán Alonso, Tyler Soper, Ben Soper, and Jon Sims.
4 ½ stars out of 5