From Prada to Nada presents itself as a Latina take on Sense and Sensibility. It’s a strange thing to aim for, the two sides of the equation inherently disconnected. It turns out that the film mostly downplays its ethnic elements and simply tells a shallow tale of romance in a barrio setting. The flaw here is that Austen’s flair for stately romance doesn’t actually translate all that well to the new setting, and the film makes no real effort to adjust and adapt. This leaves audiences with a thoroughly tepid and unsatisfying movie.
Nora and Mary Dominguez (Camilla Belle and Alexa Vega) are sisters used to living a comfortable life in Beverly Hills. But when their father suddenly dies, the two are left penniless. They’re forced to move into their aunt’s house in East Los Angeles, where the two are in for a serious case of culture shock. While studious Nora struggles with balancing work and her love life, outgoing Mary finds trouble in the form of a passionate teacher’s assistant.
There’s really something to the idea of second generation Mexican-Americans learning to reconnect to a heritage that’s been made foreign to them. Sadly, the film doesn’t tackle this thread with any conviction. Instead, the film focuses on a couple of tepid romances. The real conflict of this story lies in how the sisters struggle to adapt to their new surroundings, but the movie practically glosses over that aspect. It spends most of its time swooning over the various men in the girls’ lives.
The romantic aspect, despite all the time given to it, still comes off as underdeveloped. The film is loosely based on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and it seems to have taken its approach to romance from the Victorian ideal. We don’t get to see the relationships really bloom. In one scene, Nora chastises Mary for calling a guy who she barely knows, only to do exactly that later on in the film. There’s a general lack of passion in all of this, the story simply letting its characters end up in each other’s arms without any real struggle. Technically, the film doesn’t have much of an identity. Handheld camera shots contrast greatly with an otherwise glossy exterior.
There are actresses that seem to grow larger when a dramatic moment arrives. Camilla Belle is the opposite, shrinking the moment calls for something greater. She suffocates her romantic scenes with a frustrating disconnectedness, reciting her lines as if it was just a table read. Alexa Vega feels more comfortable on camera, but she can occasionally lapse into shrillness. There isn’t much enthusiasm from the rest of the cast. Wilmer Valderrama looks tired and lazy in his role. The somewhat clever Nicholas D’Agosto ends up looking like a watered down version of Topher Grace.
From Prada to Nada is a chore to watch. It’s a given that the film was going to be predictable, considering that it’s based on a classic novel. But the film goes the extra mile in sticking to the most tired of narrative conceits. There’s merit in the idea of transporting the template of Austen’s comedy of manners to a completely different culture, the situation inherently ripe for narrative and thematic surprises. But the film inevitably runs into the most common pitfall when dealing with Austen’s work. It reduces the story to a couple of girls dealing with affairs of the heart, forgetting that Austen was often commenting on the entire society that surrounded them.
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