Stage actor Eva Noblezada is truly excellent in this timely and optimistic debut feature from writer-director Diane Paragas
The very talented Filipino-Mexican actor Eva Noblezada – a Tony Award-nominated Broadway performer who got her big break starring in the 2016 West End revival of Miss Saigon – makes her feature film debut in this endearing country music drama and in the process proves her unique gift is felt equally on the screen as it is on the stage.
In writer-director Diane Paragas’ first narrative feature, Yellow Rose, Noblezada plays Rose Garcia, a 17-year-old Filipino-American teenager who lives in a shabby motel with her undocumented mother (Princess Punzalan) and who at night spends her time playing guitar, listening to vinyl records, and dreaming of country music stardom. If this has a somewhat familiar ring to it, Yellow Rose bears an unavoidable comparison to 2018's similarly named Wild Rose, another country music drama about another girl named Rose, though that one was set in Glasgow and starred Jessie Buckley as a former convict trying to make it to Nashville.
Thankfully, it only takes five minutes before the similarities between the two films begin to feel superficial. This is a well-made and very watchable drama in its own right, packed with excellent performances (especially from Noblezada, whose voice is stunning, but whose acting is brilliantly authentic), shimmering cinematography, and an inspired sense of time and place – namely, the dive bars and dance halls of Austin, Texas. It's in these faded institutions that Rose finds herself after being separated from her mother, forced to slum it in filthy backrooms and grubby trailers. All the while she hinges her hopes on creating a successful demo, but harbours a deep-seated fear of performing on stage.
I was lucky enough to see Nobelzada in Miss Saigon, where she commanded the stage like an actor with ten times the experience. Here, she gives a far more understated and naturalistic turn, but is no less magnetic. The performance requires a good amount of youthful energy – she is 24 playing 17 – but Nobelzada never succumbs to the mistake theatre actors often tend to make when making the leap from stage to screen: namely, going too big. It’s the sort of performance that is quietly assured without seeming over-considered or in the least bit theatrical.
Musical lovers will also relish how this film reunites one Miss Saigon star with another: Lea Salonga, who originated the role of Kim in the original West End production, appears in a small part as Rose’s aunt. Real life country star Dale Watson plays himself in a charming extended performance as Rose's sort-of mentor. Watson also wrote a handful of the original songs – and they're genuine keepers (the brilliant “Square Peg” rattled around in my head for hours afterwards).
In many ways, Yellow Rose is happy to embrace convention, though Paragras mixes up the beats just enough that it mostly avoids feeling like something formulaic and cliche. The dual narrative – one that splits its time between Rose and the country music scene and Rose's mother after she's arrested and prepped for deportation – doesn't quite come together with the effortlessness of Rose and Dale's heartfelt duets, yet the film's inherent sincerity and heart winds up convincing you anyway.
At its core, Yellow Rose is a film about finding where one belongs, but it's also about the kindness of strangers. The film's greatest strength, perhaps, is that its characters aren't written to betray or exploit Rose as they might in a more cynical film. The nice people here turn out to be… well, nice (and others, like an ICE agent who is clearly in the wrong profession, are given room to reveal hidden depths, affirming Paragras' even-handed approach to a tricky subject). Yellow Rose's ultimately optimistic view of the world is infectious – even when it doesn't quite hit the right notes, they're all so lovingly played, you're unlikely to care.
Yellow Rose is now available on various streaming services.Where to watch