Abbie Cornish Tackles Motherhood, Immigration and Politics in 'The Girl'
It rumbles and wheezes along the sparse, desolate southwest, but there was no better place for David Riker to talk about his new film, The Girl, than on the roof of a New York City hotel. From there, he could toss a baseball and, with the day’s wind whipping, have it land in what remains of the Garment District, a little pocket of western Manhattan where generations of immigrants began sewing and sweating their way to the American dream -- or the promise thereof.
It was in that nearly-forgotten time portal that Riker made his 1998 film La Cuidad, about the Latino workers still employed in the falling industrial zone, and where he absorbed far more than he could put in that one film.
“I learned that the great unspoken truth about what it means to be an immigrant today is that you’re separated from your children and that’s not a political thing,” the director says, looking out over the labyrinth of skyscrapers and sweatshops. “That’s universal. That touches home.”
By children, he means more broadly the culture of one’s home country, the life that one must abandon for blind optimism in the face of uncertainty. The discovery inspired Riker to take a cross-country trip to the US-Mexico border, to understand the journey and the risk and the loss inherent in leaving home for a shot at more. What would ultimately result in the trips -- and there would be many by the time the process wrapped -- is the story of Ashley, a troubled Texan single mother played by Abbie Cornish, and Rosa, an orphaned eight year old Mexican girl portrayed by Santiago Maritza, and their suddenly intertwined fates.
Struggling in a minimum wage job at a big box store and unable to scratch together the funds or the attitude needed to move out of her dilapidated trailer and win her son Georgie back from social services, Ashley takes a trip down across the border with her estranged father, who turns out to be a coyote who transports Mexicans secretly and illegally to America. Desperate for cash, Ashley attempts to do the same, but her efforts go awry when the Rio Grande rises higher and its current pulls harder than she expects, taking with it Rosa’s mother and leaving the young girl helpless and abandoned.
Taking her in as her own daughter isn’t an option; fiscally, emotionally and legally, Ashley is far from able to maintain her own child, let alone one whom she trafficked into the country. But therein lies the great twist to Riker’s film: when Rosa tells Ashley that her mother promised that America was a great land of opportunity, with swimming pools and butlers for all, it’s clear that her imagined Land of Milk and Honey is as real as Oz, while her own home, we soon find out, is the sort of paradise to which Americans dream of escaping.
“That to me is one of my favorite scenes because that’s the kind of conversation that doesn’t happen,” Riker explains, smiling at the subversion. “You don’t really get those conversations enough, but they were kind of reading each other’s dialogues. The Mexican is supposed to be saying I live in a box and the American is supposed to be saying you can pick the fruit off the trees here, but that’s not what they’re saying, they’re saying the opposite.”
It would be easy for that sort of message to turn into a condescending cliché – Riker called it the “unspoken mythology that the promised land is the north and the rest of the world, you’d love to get out of” that informs most migrant films – but he threads the needle and pulls through to earnestness by concentrating on both the political and the personal. Desperation is geographically indiscriminate, as both sides see a mirage of hope across the border. Ashley’s character serves in part as a reminder of the failings of America, the Land of Milk and Honey gone sour and its abandonment of those that service the superfluous lifestyles of the few that have attained that American dream.
Whereas Ashley holds an early bitterness towards the Mexican workers that she believes steal the good shifts at her supermarket job, we all soon enough realize that the fortified border separates political bodies more than people; save for skin color, her plight in Texas is similar to those willing to pay $500 they don’t have and brave an unpredictable undertow in the middle of the night just to make it to the Lone Star State.
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Indeed, they even speak the same language. Cornish, an Australian, pulls off a remarkable job of not only speaking with an authentic, hard-scrabble Texas twang, but twisting it into the more-than-perfunctory Spanish of someone who grew up where cultures bleed into one another.
A sizable portion of the movie is in Spanish, with conversations between the rough, simple second language of the American woman and the easy flow that comes from the whip-smart yet wide-eyed little girl. To make it believable, Cornish bolted directly to language studies and accent coaches as soon as she took the part.
“First of all,” she said of her concerns about taking the role, “how do I learn as much Spanish as I can so that I don’t feel like I’m doing too much pretending? So that it feels real, it feels like it’s instinctual, that it’s coming from within me, that it has meaning, that the words carried weight. It’s kind of like when you read a poem for the first time, the first read, even though it might strike you, it takes numerous reads to really understand the tone and the rhythm and what the poem is really doing and saying.”
The natural believability of conversation was made possible by her close relationship with young Maritza, a non-professional actress who auditioned for the film only when Riker brought his casting efforts to her small hometown.
There is an antagonism between the two – Ashley resents Rosa for the intrusion in her already difficult life, while Rosa, with stunning force and persistence, demands that Ashley help her find her mother – which is ironically the sort of tough love that Ashley needs and the exact opposite of the pair’s off-screen relationship.
Cornish and Maritza quickly cemented a unique bond during a day off together in the plaza of Oaxaca (where much of the film was shot), playing games and buying candy using cash Riker pulled from the project’s tiny $3 million budget. And so while Cornish often had to shoot her tiny precocious co-star scornful looks and harsh, curt rebukes, the tension ended when the cameras stopped rolling.
“We would almost play with each other and literally David would call cut and she would just launch at me or she’d get me to spin her around or run around,” Cornish laughed. “And the cool thing too was because I didn’t have to worry about looking good, we could run around, I could get a bit sweaty, and no one would get upset about it. They’d be like, all right, you ready? Push me in front of the camera. We had a lot of fun, played a lot of games.”
Under the scorching sun, out of sight and mind, with little cash and every chance of failure, they were in it together.