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TV review: 'Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip'

In a flag-waving documentary for HBO, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi explores America with the help of newly naturalized citizens.

July 04, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • In Citizen U.S.A., filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi looks at the effects of naturalization.
In Citizen U.S.A., filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi looks at the effects of naturalization. (Janet Van Ham / Associated…)

Just in time for the Fourth of July, filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi and HBO present a homemade patriotic valentine, complete with ribbons, streamers and enough flag-waving to create the sensation of an actual breeze emanating from your flat screen.

"Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip" began when Pelosi's Dutch-born husband realized, upon the birth of their first child, that a green card was not enough — to avoid being "a foreigner in my own family," he had to become an American citizen. His naturalization, Pelosi tells us, changed him, and so she decided to travel the U.S. to see whether this was an experience shared by some of the 1 million people who become American citizens each year.

Setting aside any desire to actually explore the emotional complexities of renouncing one's homeland (not to mention the disturbing notion of anyone feeling like a foreigner in his own family), Pelosi is content to crash a series of naturalization ceremonies in various states to ask newly minted citizens what they like best about America.

The answers are as diverse as the countries these new Americans represent — a young man from Afghanistan rhapsodizes over the ability to walk down the street holding a woman's hand; a man from Albania cannot believe the variety of food; a woman from Thailand loves that when you call 911 someone comes to rescue you; a man from Nigeria remains grateful for clean water — but uniting them all is a sense of still-astonished gratitude that America is indeed a place of abundance and opportunity. This tone is one of both celebration and admonishment — those born Americans, we are told, too often take their freedoms for granted.

And if you don't get that from the interviews, you will from the soundtrack, which is of the variety that most usually accompanies a fireworks display.

While it is important to be reminded that the United States is still seen as the land of opportunity by a gorgeously diverse group of people who, like the generations of immigrants before them, create the dream even as they live it, "Citizen U.S.A" is less a documentary than video album. Pelosi has always been of the point-and-shoot school of filmmaking, but this plays more like a student project than a serious film. (She seems to ignore her last two films, "Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County" and "The Trials of Ted Haggard," which both explored very dark sides of the American dream.)

Pelosi wanted to make a joyful movie about America, and it's difficult to imagine any better way than by filming at the moment of citizenship. She interviews people fresh from the rigors of applying for citizenship, and you can't help wondering whether the subjects consider this one more part of the test. Pelosi's pedigree — she's the daughter of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — shows up in other ways. Former secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger both discuss their lives as naturalized Americans, albeit far too briefly.

But then everything is presented far too briefly. For all her geographic ambition, Alexandra Pelosi winds up conducting an exit poll rather than telling a real story.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com


'Citizen U.S.A.: A 50-State Road Trip'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Monday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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