At the center of Cruz Angeles’s touching first feature are Lalo and Stefanie, two high-school kids living in Brooklyn. Lalo comes from a Mexican immigrant family that struggles financially. His father, formerly a janitor at the World Trade Center, now works at Ground Zero cleaning up debris. Stefanie’s family moved back to Brooklyn after her sister was killed in the attacks. While her mother tries to hold the family together, her father’s emotions have no outlet but anger. Lalo and Stefanie meet at a birthday party, and although they start off on the wrong foot, the ice melts, and their budding friendship becomes a clandestine romance.
Don't Let Me Drown features an elegantly simple story, layered characters, and standout performances, notably from its young leads. The director's approach feels intuitive and brings a refreshing spontaneity to the story. He clearly knows everything about his characters and creates an authenticity that brings out both their emotions and humor. The character interactions seem so slight, couched mostly in everyday, often-funny situations, but gradually the film accrues weight. The textures of the city and the lives of ordinary people are shaded with a wistful sense of struggle, but the fabric of the film is woven from compassion. We care about these characters because they care about each other: that’s how they keep their heads above water.