The Fourth of July, the day of America’s independence, is a day full of red, white, blue, hot dogs, sun burns, and beer. It’s an excuse to have the day off to go to the pool, cook outside, and relish in the summer sun. But, it’s hard to celebrate America with our current track record of human rights issues on the U.S.-Mexico border. Gigi Saul Guerrero addresses this reality in Culture Shock, her feature film debut and the Fourth of July installment of Hulu’s Into the Dark film series. Guerrero contrasts the idyllic nature of the Fourth of July picnic against the real lives of those trying to come into the United States to show what the real American dream looks like: dark, dirty, violent, and fueled by the capitalist machine.
Marisol (Martha Higareda) is pregnant and desperate to cross the border to the U.S. to make a better life for her and her baby. However, she has tried to cross before, only to be left behind by her boyfriend. Now, she is determined to make it on her own, paying a coyote to grant her “safe” passage. The first half of Culture Shock could be a horror movie itself as it shows the difficulties and dangers that men, women, and children endure in the name of the American Dream. Marisol is almost raped, a young Guatemalan boy is constantly mocked and tested to make sure he can pass as authentically Mexican. Everything happens in the cover of darkness and there is a constant anxiety: what happens if they are caught?
Well, they are caught. Marisol is captured but wakes up in an idyllic American house, dressed in perfect pastel clothes, her hair perfectly done, and there’s a blonde white lady standing over her (Barbara Crampton). It seems too good to be true; everything is eerily perfect and when Marisol runs into those from her group, they don’t recognize her. But what does that matter? She’s fed, given a job and a home; it’s just what she wants, isn’t it? No, it isn’t, especially as Marisol slowly realizes this is a simulation.
Marisol, her group, and countless other immigrants are being fed into a simulation via VR goggles. They are being kept in a dingy lab, fed through tubes, and delivered a stereotypical vision of middle America instead of being let out into the world. This is the demented brainchild of Dr. Attwood (Creed Bratton), his solution to the immigration problem. Instead of crossing over the border and becoming part of the U.S. population, people become science experiments kept in a sugar-coated prison. This is the government’s solution to immigration, which doesn’t really seem that far from the truth at this point.
Higareda’s performance as Marisol truly sells the harrowing message of the film. She encapsulates the desperation, the brief relief, the horror, and the determination of a woman trying to get her child, and herself, a better life. It is also amazing to see a Latina woman as a horror film lead, which is rare in this genre. In fact, Guerrero makes sure to foreground diversity both in front of the camera and behind it. Most of the cast is Latino, and they are allowed to speak Spanish. Allowed seems to be a strong word, but this isn’t a film that is molded to conform to white American standards. Yes, you have to read subtitles for part of this film and if that’s a deterrent for you, then you need this movie more than anyone.
Barbara Crampton also delivers a spine-tingling performance as a holographic white woman who appears to mean well when really, she couldn’t care less. She is a caricature of the middle-aged, middle-class white woman who pretends to care about the world, but in reality only cares about herself. Crampton is able to walk that line between sickly sweet and absolutely nasty. She’s your mom’s Facebook friend who you try to avoid at all costs. She’s your racist neighbor who swears she isn’t racist. She’s the “let-me-speak-to-your-manager” haircut in the flesh.
Culture Shock is like if The Stepford Wives or Pleasantville tried to tackle immigration policy. Guerrero utilizes the image of the perfect America, with the manicured front lawns, pristine American flags, and friendly neighborhoods, and warps it into its true horrific form. We are not a country to be idolized, but one to be feared, one that treats immigrants like science experiments. Guerrero’s Culture Shock shows us how Americans have lost their humanity, a reminder we all need, especially on the Fourth of July.