Based on the popular 1972 novel, Carl Franklin’s adaptation is a minor success.

The story of a 7-year-old boy’s coming-of-age to understand the world around him, specifically the realities of good and evil, are told through his relationship with an elderly woman, healer and, accused witch, Ultima (Miriam Colon). Set in New Mexico during World War II, the youngest of six, Antonio (Luke Ganalon) begins a close relationship with Ultima when she comes to live with his family during her final days. Fantastical elements are peppered into the story, most prominently the role of “healer” that Ultima plays for the neighboring families and communities, which Antonio experiences first hand when she brings him to break a spell set by supposed witches on his uncle. This sets up the most driving aspect of the plot, in which the father of the three witches, Tenorio (Castulo Guerra), blames Ultima for the demise of his daughters.

But the film is a much more meditative experience on family, religion and the optimism of childhood that gives way to the realities of life. While not directly dealing with World War II, Antonio’s three brothers are off in battle and it provides a backdrop to the situations and tensions that are already present in their everyday lives. Those around Antonio find pleasures in their lives but also the let downs. Through Ultima, Antonio learns about the goodness of life and that, even during tragedy, there is still optimism to be had.

Director Carl Franklin (Devil in a Blue Dress) does a commendable job of creating a slightly whimsical, if realistic, atmosphere for the film. Though it takes place in New Mexico, many of the characters are Mexican, and it’s their heritage that the story takes dances around. Ganalon’s Antonio is clearly the standout performance of the film, but one of the strength’s of Franklin’s adaptation is not casting any famous faces and letting the characters blend and interact to create a real sense of community. However, it can also be a detriment wherein there aren’t any true standout moments of the film. It’s tendency to float by compliments the film’s themes, but it’s at the cost of the more intense moments that never feel completely earned. Still, Franklin crafts a fine film and one that’s worth seeing, whether or not one’s familiar with the source material.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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