First-time writer-director Renee Chabria's sincerity and commitment to "Sueno" are so complete they override its sentimental streak and some overly familiar plotting. Chabria inspires her cast to reveal the kindness and caring in her characters in a most endearing manner. "Sueno," which means "dream" in Spanish, is a sweet-natured film, steeped in richly varied and seductive Latin music.
John Leguizamo, just as effective expressing tenderness as he is in his more familiar brashness, is a young Mexican who comes to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of becoming a singer-composer. Never mind that his uncle turns out not to be the Taco King of L.A. but the assistant manager of a taco chain store who can provide him only with a less-than-permanent job as a waiter.
Leguizamo's cheerful Antonio is determined to remain undaunted. Still, he's close to giving up and returning to Mexico when things begin to happen.
First he's befriended by a Latino radio DJ (Nestor Serrano), who encourages him to enter the "Chance of a Lifetime Mystery Musician Contest," and finds he has a new next-door neighbor, Mirabela (Elizabeth Pena), a newly divorced woman with two young sons.
Once Mirabela and her husband, who has dumped her for a younger woman, were a successful singing duo in Mexico, but now she is resigned to being a dowdy mother. She does, however, encourage Antonio, who in turn begins the delicate but determined task of persuading her to join the group he is trying to form. Pena, who can be wistfully amusing, vulnerable and strong all at the same time, is always a pleasure to behold, but here she has one of her best roles.
While Antonio has fallen for the demure beauty Nina (Ana Claudia Talancon), who puts him off because of her devotion to her widowed, ailing father, the crux of the film is the relationship between Antonio and Mirabela, who is not nearly old enough to be his mother but is also aware that he is in love with Nina. It's not an easy situation for Mirabela, who feels no longer attractive or confident, but her maturity and the innocent Antonio's determination to launch a comeback for her proves to be a resilient combination.
While the contest, which offers a $10,000 prize, draws closer, "Sueno" effectively emphasizes the overriding importance of Antonio, through trial and error, finding the right group to back him and persuading Mirabela to join in creating his own kind of music. Leguizamo and Pena prove to be not only terrific singers but also good dancers, as is Talancon.
There is a beguiling folkloric quality to the good-humored and affectionate "Sueno," and while it provides Leguizamo to show yet another facet of his protean personality, it is most significant for providing Pena with a rare opportunity to explore the wide range of her talent.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some strong language
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare
A Destination Films presentation. Writer-director Renee Chabria. Producers Eric Kopeloff, Robert Ortiz and Marc Forster. Cinematographer Eric Moynier. Editor Lori Ball. Music supervisor Howard Paar. Music director Joel Iwataki. Choreographer Maria Torres. Costumes Caroline Eselin. Production designer Stefania Cella. Set decorator Julieann Getman. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
In general release.