The plot lines of American films about high school usually focus on matters like winning the big football game, getting into a prestigious college, and, of course, pairing up with the guy or girl of your dreams. Ashley, the central figure in Emily Cohen Ibañez’s documentary Fruits of Labor, would probably love to have such matters be her principal concerns. Instead, this teenager is the principal support of her family, in the service of which she holds down two jobs—harvesting strawberries by day and working in a food packaging plant by night—with the end result being that she’s sometimes too tired to go to school. That’s not great, since she’s a senior in high school who wants to go to college and do something with her life, but she has an even bigger problem to worry about: the very real prospect that her mother, who is undocumented, may be deported, leaving Ashley as sole support of her three siblings.
True to the principle that people who have the most serious problems to deal with usually spend the least time complaining about them, Ashley is not given to bemoaning her fate or wishing things were otherwise. Instead, she’s a thoughtful person who is aware of her situation but doesn’t let it stop her from enjoying the good things that life has to offer—like choosing a prom dress, getting her nails done in sparkly pink, hiking in the woods and enjoying the seashore—while also doing what is necessary each day. You may feel outrage when hearing some details of her life—like the fact that she’s expected to work to support one brother and the woman he knocked up, while he gets a free pass—but those aren’t thoughts she has much time or inclination to entertain.
Fruits of Labor is a quiet, closely observed, film, offering an intimate view of the lives of Ashley and her family, who live in Watsonville, California, known as “Fresaville” by the farm workers who labor in the area’s strawberry fields and processing plants. The film’s slow pace echoes the deliberate pace of life as lived by Ashley and her family, and cinematographer Gabriella Garcia-Pardo presents their lives as a series of everyday moments rather than earthshaking events.
Director Cohen Ibañez does not romanticize the stresses of living in poverty or being on La Migra’s radar, but it balances those concerns with an appreciation of the beauty in Ashley’s world. The natural world is one source of this beauty—the camera’s habit of stopping to focus on a flower or an animal reminds me of Charles Laughton’s and Stanley Cortez’s work in The Night of the Hunter—but so is the love of Ashley and her family for each other, which is particularly evident in the intimate talks she has with her mother. The pace of Fruits of Labor may be too slow for some viewer’s tastes, but those willing to relax into it will find that it amply rewards their trust. | Sarah Boslaugh
Fruits of Labor is available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.