When I write about the need for diversity in Hollywood, the need for more women behind and in front of the cameras, I’m not advocating for little off-beat comedies about a young woman’s obsession over her telenovela. But I’m not mad that in these treacherous times for women of color filmmakers, that a little eccentric send-up of novela and young adult tropes can find an audience. “Ana Maria in Novela Land” is a pleasant surprise in a barren land inhospitable to stories like this.
In this “Jane the Virgin” meets “Freaky Friday” spoof, our leading lady Ana Maria (Edy Ganem) is having a terrible day in East L.A., unable to hold a job or move past her obsession with live-tweeting her favorite novela. When a lightning strike hits her home mid-way through an episode, she’s transported to the role of the show’s star. The "Novela Land" is strange, with no toilets (you can’t show that on prime time!), doors that lead to other soap operas (like stumbling into a Korean soap with actor Sung Kang) and no working televisions to escape through. It’s up to Ana Maria to survive the tricky plot and return home before the season finale takes her Novela Land off the air for good.
I fell right into “Novela Land” by the amount of attention to detail paid to subtitles like changes in accents. It’s not something painfully obvious, but to a bilingual viewer it drives jokes that much closer to home. Our millennial protagonist is English dominant, while her novela counterpart is Spanish dominant, complete with thick accent when speaking English. In one scene when her mother is chiding her daughter's marital chances in Spanish, Ana Maria snaps back in English, "I speak Spanish too, mom." It's a household argument held between first and second generation Americans, and director Georgina Garcia Riedel peppers such little moments liberally throughout the picture.
Edy Ganem from “Devious Maids” demonstrates great charisma between her two roles, one as the quirky underdog Ana Maria and the other as the heavily made up telenovela lead, Ariana. She plays the parts so well, switching accents and physicality between a laidback young woman and the caricature of the high maintenance drama starlet, it was difficult to believe she was the same actress.
“Novela Land” also bears a bittersweet note as this is one of the last times we’ll see the name Elizabeth Peña roll through the credits. The award-winning stage and screen actress passed away last year from complications from alcohol abuse. She was most recognized from her roles in “La Bamba,” “Resurrection Blvd.” and had recently scored a stint in the Robert Rodriguez produced drama for his El Rey Network, “Matador.” Director Georgina Garcia Riedel dedicated “Ana Maria in Novela Land” in her memory. Peña had also starred in Riedel’s first feature, “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer.”
Whether you would like to watch Peña in one of her last roles, get lost in another “Novela Land” love story or enjoy a smartly-written bilingual comedy, “Ana Maria in Novela Land” was a treat to enjoy, to listen to and to laugh at. Just like I no longer hear Spanish spoken in my home on a daily basis, it’s not every day I find a movie so grounded in the Hyphen American experience and unafraid to poke fun at some of our most valued pastimes, sitting around the television and watching the show as a family.
“Ana Maria in Novela Land” opens in select theaters on Feb. 27.