Gringa (2023)

Steve Zahn is perfect in ‘Gringa’ (2023)

First of all, spoiler alert — nothing terrible happens in Gringa. I had hesitated to watch this movie because I thought it was going to be a depressing trope about failed lives and relationships. But instead, Gringa is about second chances — the chances we give ourselves to recover, and the chances we give others to fail us again. But these are also chances to do better.

The Story

In the story, Large Marge Bickford (Jess Gabor) is a high school soccer player who largely sits on the bench and is scorned by her teammates. She and her single mom have struggled since her father, a former Portsmouth FC player, abandoned them when she was a toddler. When mom (Judy Greer) is killed in a car accident, Marge takes the ashes with her as she decides to find and surprise her father in Mexico. She doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t even have a passport.

Mexico has been a salvation for Jackson Bickford (Steve Zahn). He surfs when he wants, keeps the beach clean, and is drunk much of the time. But the town respects him, and he has a nice beach house, a gorgeous girlfriend (Rosalyn Sanchez, the babe in Rush Hour 2),  and helps the local Padre Patrick (Jorge A. Jimenez) coach a women’s futbol team. For a guy who doesn’t know how to be a dad, and who doesn’t have a peso to his name, Bickford does a pretty good job giving his new-found daughter pithy advice and the kind of honesty and guidance Marge has never received. She can stay for a month, but he makes Marge join his futbol team. He also tells Marge she has to learn to surf on her own (watch the wonderful clip below), although she gets help from a good-looking local boy.

The team and their gringa Marge gradually warm up to each other, as do Marge and her father. He extends her stay, and as Marge’s life and soccer skills improve, she gets Dad to promise to stop drinking. But he gets drunk after the quinceañera of player Azucena (Valentina Buzzurro). Marge takes his failure personally and with Azucena’s help, tries to run away back to San Diego. But without a passport, the girls enlist the help of a coyote. Dad and the Padre get the girls back, and the team advances to a special Friendship Cup in Tijuana, where they play her high school team in the big game.

A captivating dramedy

Gringa is a drama where Steve Zahn provides all the counterbalancing comedy, either through his words of wisdom or his delivery. I can only think of one humorous line by anyone other than Zahn (i.e., the Padre). Jess Gabor, on the other hand, embodies Marge in a determined but angry and self-shielding performance that rivals Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. The uplifting message of Gringa is that sport, friends, and family help Marge crack her self-protective veneer and open herself up to a whole life.

Steve Zahn and Jess Gabor create such an interesting story together, I wanted to see more of it. In fact, this is the first soccer movie where I felt the futbol big game was a distraction from the main story and wished they had left it out. 🙂 I wanted more screen time with Steve Zahn, as his performance reminds me of Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou.

The Mexican village and culture are important parts of the film. The quinceañera is beautifully filmed and illuminates what those celebrations are about. It was also interesting to see an area of the West coast of Mexico that looks like a tropical paradise. The film takes place in the Riviera Nayarit, where the film’s screenwriter Patrick Hasburgh has a home.

And a warning — my definition of “nothing terrible happens” in the film might not align with yours — there is a seduction (via naked surfing!), and there is an attempted rape by the coyote. But Marge and her teammate deal with the situations and fight back. Like screenwriter Hasburgh, as I age, I’m less able to watch films with brutality. So I was relieved that these troubling incidents in the film were played down. You could argue whether the coyote segment was realistic or even necessary, but given how much I liked the film, I’m giving that a pass.

The soccer and surfing

Director Marny Eng is a stunt coordinator, and she and her fellow director and partner, E.J. Foerster, are both soccer fans, as was the cinematographer. I think this film demonstrates how hard it is to get soccer right in a movie so that it is entertaining and helps tell a story. Truthfully, the best soccer scenes are when Los Bichos (the Bugs) celebrate their goals. Otherwise, everything looks like rec-level soccer practice.

It might seem strange that Gringa spends as much time with surfing as futbol. But it turns out, surfing is the screenwriter’s passion, and of course it adds to Dad Bickford’s story that in the water and in Nayarit is where he finds peace and paradise.

Second chances

From creation to release, Gringa is about second chances, not just within the story and its themes, but for the production itself. It took 6 years for the creators to get this independent film out the door. They filmed it in Mexico in Nov-2019, and then the pandemic hit. Post-production was conducted over zoom. Film festivals were suspended, and they are the primary channel for getting independent films out there. So Gringa only got released this year, which is 4 years after shooting. 

Another second chance was producing this movie at all, with the 2 directors doing their first feature film as an indy. They both have long careers in the industry with action films, but for  E.J. Foerster to direct his first feature in his 70s is pretty unusual. He and screenwriter Hasburgh were young Aspen ski instructors together, so given all the age and gender discrimination in Hollywood, it shows a lot of perseverance that this very good Young Adult film even got made. It probably helped that Steve Zahn is in it, but it’s a shame that few people will see his excellent performance.

In Conclusion

One small problem I had was that whenever Spanish is spoken, there are no English sub-titles. It turns out, this was intentional. The directors wanted to show what Marge would go through, as she doesn’t speak Spanish. I got to practice my Spanish, but it would have been nice if the sub-titles had been written in Spanish, rather than just saying that Spanish is being spoken. Oh well, art for art’s sake.

Gringa is a very good film, despite the few flaws. I’m not sure if its message is more important for parents or for teenagers, but it certainly provides a lot of food for thought. Please enjoy.

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8