It’s been a tough time for Latino representation in pop culture. While television has made great strides in casting Latino actors in non-traditional roles to show off a greater range of characterization beyond “gang banger” and “migrant worker,” Hollywood is still stuck in the dark ages. But with television shows like Jane the Virgin and the sadly canceled Killer Women making way for telenovelas (basically Spanish soap operas) in the mainstream, it’s time for film to follow that path.
That’s where Ana Maria in Novela Land comes in. An well crafted parody of those popular novelas that both celebrates and critiques the genre while never feeling like it’s making fun of those who love it. Shame it could’ve been more.
Ana Maria, in a nutshell, is like a better version of Freaky Friday. The film follows the titular Ana Maria (Edy Ganem), a twenty something who can’t hold a job and would rather spend her time live tweeting her favorite novela, Pasión Sin Límites (or Passion Without Limits), than hanging out with her friends. As her favorite character Ariana Tomosa (once again, Edy Ganem) seems to have the best life with an upcoming wedding and a hot guy pining for her, Ana Maria wishes that was her life. After a storm, a tweet, and some shenanigans, Ana Maria becomes a part of her favorite telenovela. Now she must make it home before the series ends or she’ll be stuck forever.
Ana Maria gently tows the line between homage and parody without ever falling too deep into one of those pitfalls. It’s all part of an effort to make the film a bit more digestible for a wider audience. The film already has a few esoteric barriers to entry (the audience needs some kind of knowledge of novela culture, and the film has a cast of native Spanish speakers, for example), so the choices it makes are understandable but a bit disheartening. For example, while the film is a nice comedy, it never quite goes far enough with its premise. I’m not sure if it’s a fear of offending anyone, or a lack of confidence in its Spanish flair, but there’s a major sense of holding back. For example, Ana Maria joins the show as a character, rather than switching places with the actress playing that character. So the jokes come from the surface level hokiness already apparent in telenovelas rather than trying to find something deeper. And while most of the film is indeed a fun parody of the tropes, there are a few jokes that are definitely derogatory. Like Luiz Guzman’s Licenciado Schmidt popping around the corner every couple of scenes is funny at first, but grows tired as the film relies on it.
That lack of confidence also has an effect on the film’s outcome. Since Ana Maria joins this fantastical world, her decision to return home never quite feels real. Thanks to the show’s plot giving her a deadline, Ana Maria doesn’t come to her conclusions through character work but through ease of plot. It’s like she’d rather live her boring life than die, and that’s not a great message to go out on. But there’s one major aspect I would like to touch on, and it’s the one thing that separates this film from most comedies: Ana Maria never loses her agency. It’s a refreshing skew of Latino culture.
Latino culture (whether they be Mexican, or from the Central and Southern American regions) follows traditional beats. You know, grow up through church, get married and have kids at a certain age. While the film at first criticizes Ana Maria’s choice to be alone (notably, it’s her choice), the film’s ending, while forced, makes that not seem so bad. Ana Maria’s sister may have a traditional marriage, but the film allows Ana Maria the freedom to go through the film’s journey in the first place. It’s a small, but powerful detail.
Beyond its story, the film’s production is quite well done. It took me awhile to realize Ana Maria and Ariana Tomosa were played by the same actress, and I’ll give the film credit for managing the feat with just some makeup and hair tricks. And while I wish the film would’ve sunk further into its telenovela world (we only see one set piece, and it’s not used very well), every scene in the show is given a nice glaze. A bit foggy, a bit mystical. It definitely retains its fantastical appeal.
Ana Maria in Novela Land is a nice first step into broadening Latino culture in film. It portrays a facet of that culture rarely seen with analytical eyes, but never quite has a statement one way or the other. It’s a nice comedy that pokes fun at the genre, and Edy Ganem is a great lead, but the film lacks bite.