“Mi Vida Loca” and Lessons on Girlhood

(Image description: A girl on the left wearing a white tank top is held back by two girls, one wearing a pink tank top and the other in a black t-shirt. A girl in a grey button-up holds back another girl in a white t-shirt on the right-hand side. This image takes place at a park with a man-built lake. Via Letterboxd

“Mi Vida Loca,” a movie about girls in a street gang in pre-gentrified Echo Park, is the ideal and quintessential coming-of-age movie. Following the example set by movies like “Boyz n The Hood” and “Menace II Society,” “Mi Vida Loca” uses the gangster genre to tell the coming-of-age story of young girls on the cusp of adulthood. Although I’ve watched this movie countless times, I have realized that outside of my bubble, for those who don’t often watch Mexican-American cinema, this movie isn’t considered “mainstream.” According to Letterboxd, this movie has only been watched by 2.4K Letterboxd users and only has 240 written reviews compared to the roughly 3 million Letterboxd users on the website. This is a great shame because “Mi Vida Loca” is a fantastic and widely accessible movie (you might be able to find it free somewhere on YouTube), with characters that draw you in from the opening scene. Though “Mi Vida Loca” is heartfelt, goofy, and sometimes ridiculous, it is ultimately a movie driven by its character work, making sure viewers feel compassion for the characters on their journey out of girlhood.  It’s a gang movie that refuses to shame its characters for their involvement in gang culture and instead shows gang life as a means of survival and sisterhood. It has no intention of providing the viewer with an afterschool-esque message of “don’t join a gang” but instead presents the tribulations of its main characters with the foresight that the viewer will come up with their own takeaways. This plot analysis aims to do the same thing by highlighting how this movie compassionately depicts the complexities of girls who are often not given the right to be complex. 

Let’s start with our two main characters, Sad Girl and Mousie; while there’s a plethora of interesting characters sprinkled all throughout the movie, the Echo Park gang’s journey into maturity and adulthood begins with this pair of best friends. Sad Girl and Mousie were best friends long before they were jumped into the Echo Park street gang. They had been childhood best friends, with Sad Girl helping Mousie stay out of trouble with her parents and Mousie helping to teach Sad Girl English. Their friendship was one of those friendships that evolved into a sisterly bond. They could depend on each other for anything, and it was with each other that they felt most secure and at home. As their friendship follows them into their late teens, a boy named Ernesto and Mousie begin dating and eventually have a baby. This newborn baby turns Mousie into a recluse who only wants to spend time with her baby and, consequently, less time with Ernesto, Sad Girl, and the rest of the gang. Fast forward, and we see that Sad Girl and Ernesto use the excuse of missing Mousie to pursue a relationship behind her back. While it is clear that Sad Girl genuinely misses her friend, it is also apparent that she harbors feelings of bitterness and jealousy about being replaced by Mousie’s baby boy. She uses Ernesto to fill the void Mousie left and get back at her for her “betrayal.” Ernesto’s part in this whole affair is a lot less innocent. Ernesto manipulates Sad Girl’s feelings of loss and replacement to pursue a relationship with her, ignoring his responsibility as a father and co-parent. Ultimately, Sad Girl and Ernesto’s newfound relationship results in a baby girl. 

As you can imagine, this leads to serious problems between Sad Girl and Mousie, resulting in months of shouting and arguing outside each other’s homes and Mousie’s ostracization from the gang. They eventually agree to have a big fight “at the Logs,” which refers to a specific area of Elysian Park, a park frequented by the girls. This fight causes serious anxiety on both sides as the fear of death looms heavily over both girls. One of the homegirls gives Sad Girl a gun for protection, and Mousie goes through great trouble to ensure Ernesto makes sure her son remembers her and how she “fought for love.” Obviously, girls fighting over a guy is nothing new in stories about girlhood. However, I think this relationship drastically differs from other depictions because of how its aftermath affects the characters and the plot. 

(Image description: Sad Girl on the left and Mousie on the right. They are posing for a photo booth picture. Their faces are close together, and they are holding hands. The words “Mi Vida Loca,” HBO, and rated R appear in the photo. via IMDb)

Mousie and Sad Girl’s pregnancies and early motherhood expose the gang’s juvenile conception of “sisterhood” and how much they aren’t prepared for the consequences of the real world. Being in a gang has dire consequences and immense responsibility, but it is apparent that up to this point, the girls viewed the gang in a not-so-serious manner. They’re “sisters,” but in a very superficial way. When Mousie decides to put her baby and herself over the gang, they freeze her out and openly take Sad Girl’s side in the whole ordeal. Instead of seeing a homegirl in desperate need of companionship, they saw a traitor and someone who wasn’t “down” for them anymore. Sad Girl’s situation is the personification of “it takes a village” as she is smothered with support in raising her young daughter. In contrast, Mousie has no one. When she first became pregnant, she was thrown out of the house by her father and had been bouncing from house to house with her newborn child, waiting for something to stick. While taking on the responsibility of providing for his son, Ernesto is no help in actually raising and taking care of him and is especially no help in ensuring that Mousie has a home to call her own. He shows significantly more attention to Sad Girl than Mousie and is a shoulder for her to cry on. This movie doesn’t present Mousie’s experience as a poor single mother to scare young girls into never even thinking of sex. Instead, it uses both pregnancies to show that while these girls are placed in very adult situations, their reactions still exist in the realm of adolescence. In fact, it shows that instead of embracing adulthood and taking on their new responsibilities, they often aggressively fight against it. Mousie and Sad Girl are both mothers, but ultimately their children take the backseat as their attention lies in their animosity. When we see them in confrontations with each other, both their children are present in the background, weighing this childish beef as much more important than ensuring their children grow up in a safe and stable environment. This childish “catty” drama is juxtaposed with Ernesto and his gang. While Mousie and Sad Girl spend most of their time yelling and arguing with each other, Ernesto deals with the burden of providing for two young children by becoming a drug dealer. While viewers can argue all day and night that being a drug dealer doesn’t provide children with a safe and stable environment, Ernesto still took on the added responsibility of ensuring that his children have food and clothes to wear. He made an adult decision in an adult situation, something both Sad Girl and Mouise refuse to do. 

However, this movie does not fault either Sad Girl or Mousie for being preoccupied with some guy. Instead, it uses Ernesto as the launching pad into maturity for both girls and, consequently, the gang. Ultimately when the girls go fight at The Logs, it is the same night that a drug deal goes wrong, and Ernesto is shot and killed. This death serves as the turning point for Mousie and Sad Girl. It’s a moment that sobers them up, making them both realize in different ways that they are mothers and fighting each other won’t solve any of their problems. Ernesto’s death means he left behind a young son and daughter to two dirt-poor mothers; this soul-crushing reality results in Sad Girl and Mousie’s reconciliation. Ultimately, they turn to each other to cope with the loss of Ernesto and the fact that they no longer have any source of income. Just by the opening scene alone, viewers could never have imagined that Sad Girl and Mousie would put their differences aside, especially for their children’s sake. But that’s what death does, it makes you realize what’s important in life, and in this case, that their sisterhood and friendship are much more important than fighting over Ernesto. It is in death that Mousie comes to terms with all the fucked up shit Ernesto did to her, and as cruel as it is, it’s in death that she can finally heal from that relationship. While Ernesto’s death pushes Sad Girl and Mousie into the arms of each other and begins the process of shedding the skin of their more childish tendencies, his death also reveals how shortsighted the girls were. While they were preoccupied with fighting each other, they didn’t realize how much money Ernesto was actually making from drug dealing. While they were barely scraping by with the help of Welfare, Ernesto was making enough money to make some major investments (spoiler alert: all the money was being put into his prized possession, his truck Suavecito). 

(Image description: Ernesto, wearing a blue and black flannel, poses with his truck Suavecito. The truck is green, with a picture of a brown-haired woman posing with a gun and the words Suavecito painted in black. Ernesto poses in front of hills with green trees. via YouTube)

It’s not until the prison release of an older homegirl, Giggles, that Mousie, Sad Girl, and consequently, the other girls in the gang begin to put life in perspective and map out their futures. Giggle’s release from prison is built up in the movie, reaching a rather satisfying crescendo for the viewers. To the girls, pre-released Giggles represents the ultimate homegirl, someone who was ride or die for her man to the point where she was willing to serve time for him. This street rep built up around Giggles is seen mostly through the eyes of Sad Girl, as she hopes to learn from Giggles how to better honor her now-deceased man and live without him. In contrast to Mousie, Sad Girl doesn’t view the death of Ernesto as an opportunity to heal old wounds. Instead, she holds him up to saint status, centering him in her life over herself and her daughter. Giggles is, therefore, everything Sad Girl aspires to be.

In short, the gang views prison time as making Giggles harder and are excited to see the guidance she can provide them. Upon release, however, they are met with a completely different person. Prison didn’t make Giggles harder. It made her softer and more grounded in her emotions. Giggles wasn’t waiting around in her jail cell wishing to get back to the streets, rather  she was reflecting and missing the daughter she left behind, a daughter she barely knows. Giggles comes out of prison with a new appreciation for life and a desire to make something more for herself. To put it simply, the girls do not appreciate this newfound attitude. 

Prior to Giggles’ release, the movie gives the viewer street life with no real-life repercussions. It’s all fun and games until Ernesto dies. Then, it’s a question of, “what now? Giggles represent the repercussions and the answer of “what now?” as she refuses to live the life that once got her into trouble and has no desire to watch the younger girls walk the road she once did. Giggles’ repercussions for being down for the gang and for her man were years in prison with little to no contact with her daughter, coming out of prison with her partner dead, and facing the realities of trying to improve oneself, getting a job, etc., while being a felon. Giggles, therefore, is not only the mirror to the life and hardships that await Mousie and, especially, Sad Girl if they sulk and succumb to their own immaturity, but she also serves as the vehicle to self-improvement and a lesson in what real sisterhood is. Through the hardships that Giggles has already faced and will continue to face, she feels responsible for guiding the girls in the right direction and gives them a real purpose in life that goes beyond the parameters of boy drama. 

(Image description: Whisper on the left wearing a black button-up and a black hat with the letters EXP on it. Giggles on the right wearing a white t-shirt under a black and brown flannel. They pose in front of a white wall with graffiti painted in black on it. Via Kids Del Futuro)

Suavecito was ultimately kept secret from both Sad Girl and Mousie, and it isn’t until the day that Giggles is released and taken home from prison that the girls are made aware of the truck. This truck really is the moment in time when Sad Girl, Mousie, and Co. become truly self-sufficient. When they are made aware that the guys in Ernesto’s gang are going to enter Suavecito into a car show, they fight to ensure that the majority of the money goes to Sad Girl and Mousie. This contrasts greatly with the depiction of sisterhood we encountered at the movie’s beginning — the same sisterhood that left Mousie all alone to raise her child. With the influence and guidance of Giggles, the girls learn to depend on each other and ensure that struggling members of the gang’s needs are met. Without Giggles’s release and presence, the girls would have never reached this kind of unity and self-sufficiency. Suavecito is the shared goal among the girls that makes them get their shit together and get organized. The movie reaches a full circle moment, as earlier in the movie, the boys were depicted as being more mature and united, and now the girls take the reigns and have full control of their destiny. At this point, the girls can truly care for themselves without the help of the men in their lives. I don’t think this point is told through the stereotypical “feminist” lens of teaching girls that to achieve autonomy they have to learn to live without men. Instead, as Giggles points out in the movie, their boys are either dead or in prison by the time of adulthood, and the future of Echo Park for the girls and their children depends on them. Giggles gave them a goal, and while the car show might seem like a small goal, it snowballs into greater aspirations. This movie does a great job through the directing and cinematography of making its characters feel real and lived in. After the movie is finished, you feel like you know Sad Girl, Mousie, and all the other girls personally. However, while I think the movie shows great compassion for its characters and doesn’t succumb to the easy afterschool-esque tropes of gang-related movies, it was written and directed by a white woman who was an outsider to this culture, Allison Anders. It begs the question of who exactly has the authority to tell these stories and to do it authentically and respectfully. While I don’t think Anders disrespects the culture and people she represents, I will say that “Mi Vida Loca” is more memorable because of the Latino actors who put their heart and soul into bringing the plot and characters to life rather than the particular directing style or the script. This is why I left out this detail until the very end of this article. The heart of this movie lies within the actors, they’re the ones that make the movie memorable and feel lived in, and they are the ones who you should keep in mind when debating whether or not you want to watch this movie. Regardless of my opinions, you can make your own judgments on Allison Anders by reading this interview she did about the making of “Mi Vida Loca” here. “Mi Vida Loca” is an important part of Latino-American cinema and was one of the first depictions of Mexican-American culture in SoCal and California in general. If you don’t have plans, I urge you to watch “Mi Vida Loca,” trust me, you won’t regret it.

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