Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada) is a teenager growing up in Austin, Texas, with a love for country music and a dream of writing and performing her own country songs. She’s also an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, brought over to the U.S. by her mother Priscilla (Princess Punzalan) when she was a small child, living with the constant threat of deportation to a nation she’s never really known. That dichotomy defines Rose, and it defines Diane Paragas’ Yellow Rose, an affecting if sometimes didactic coming-of-age story infused with social commentary. Noblezada is a charismatic Broadway regular with a fantastic voice, and Yellow Rose is more effective as the story of a shy young musician discovering her talent than as a drama about America’s broken immigration system.
It has powerful moments in both modes, though, and connecting Rose to the musical genre that stereotypically represents “real America” is a smart way to demonstrate how absurd it is that she’s been targeted for potential deportation. At first, Rose and Priscilla have a humble but stable life, living in an apartment attached to a motel where Priscilla works as manager and housekeeper. Rose’s main concern is that her mom is too strict to let her go out at night to see live music with her friend and obvious eventual love interest Elliot (Liam Booth). When Rose sneaks out with Elliot to attend a performance by alt-country singer-songwriter Dale Watson (playing himself in a surprisingly substantial role), she misses the ICE raid that grabs multiple motel employees, including Priscilla. Rose is left without a home or a support system, at least at first.
But being a secretly brilliant musician has its advantages, and Rose gets help and support from Elliot, from bar owner Jolene (Libby Villari), and from Dale Watson himself, who eventually invites her to stay in a trailer on his property. While Rose gets a cold reception from her wealthy aunt Gail (Lea Salonga), and especially from Gail’s intolerant husband, the country music community takes her in, nurturing her talent while also providing resources for her to visit and aid her mom. At the same time, no one magically solves all of Rose’s problems, and one of the movie’s most effective dramatic techniques is showing the limits of people’s abilities (or willingness) to put themselves on the line for a stranger.
It’s easy to see why anyone would want to help a person as likable and talented as Rose, but she isn’t perfect, and she struggles with self-confidence and stubbornness, sometimes unwilling or unable to accept the generosity of others. There are times when the conflicts feel overly schematic, and Paragas gives only a sketchy sense of what Priscilla deals with in government custody, and what her options are for attempting to remain in the country.
The movie has a much deeper sense of the world of country music, and Yellow Rose would make a perfect companion piece for Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, another movie about a working-class woman with unlikely country-music dreams. Noblezada is just as vibrant here as Jessie Buckley was in Wild Rose, and the original songs (written by a team including Paragas, Noblezada and Watson) sound like they have genuine hit potential.
While Noblezada gives a fantastic, star-making performance, the supporting players are not always as strong, and Rose’s emotional connections with Elliot, Jolene and Dale can feel a bit shaky thanks to some uneven acting (Watson is a great musician, but maybe not a great actor). Yellow Rose has the rough qualities to be expected of a first feature, but in that way it’s like Rose’s early demo recordings, with the obvious talent shining through all the grit.