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NEW YORK – After focusing on the hardships of undocumented Latino workers in New York City in his 1998 neo-realist drama La Ciudad (The City), writer-director David Riker returns to illegal immigration and the myth of the instantly attainable American Dream in The Girl, but this time as background to a more intimate, minor-key character portrait. Observed with a piercing eye for detail and a refined grasp of visual storytelling, the film’s integrity is somewhat compromised by its narrative ellipses and slight turn toward sentimentality at the end. But Abbie Cornish’s contained yet emotionally raw performance provides an affecting fulcrum that renders those flaws secondary.
Unlike many immigrant dramas, from Gregory Nava’s El Norte to more recent films such as Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre and Chris Weitz’s A Better Life, The Girl centers not on the difficulties of illegal aliens entering and surviving in the U.S., but on how the experiences of one such group touch Ashley (Cornish), a troubled young woman from Texas. Some may feel it crosses ethical lines to use the tragic circumstances of a Mexican family as a means to chart the redemption of a lost American character. But Riker’s compassion is never in doubt, and the seriousness with which Ashley faces the consequences of her actions is etched into every facet of Cornish’s tightly wound performance.
Working in graceful synergy with cinematographer Martin Boege, Riker makes extensive use of close-ups to pin the psychological center of the drama firmly on Ashley. In short scenes with dialogue pared down to the minimum, we see her requesting a raise from her San Antonio supermarket employer and being told her attitude is holding her back. She is angry and confrontational with the foster mother who has temporary custody of her young son Georgie (Austin Wayne West), and is similarly resentful when social services makes an unscheduled visit at the mobile-home park where she lives. Via economical fragments of exposition, we learn that Child Protective Services removed Georgie from her care over alcoholism issues and that she has an upcoming court date in her bid to prove herself a fit parent.
Despite presenting her as sullen, resentful and closed-off to human contact, Cornish reveals the woman’s sorrow even as she makes it clear that Ashley blames everyone but herself for her situation. It’s this highly effective demonstration of internalized acting – Cornish’s best work since Bright Star – that stops the abrasive character from being unsympathetic.
With spare dialogue, we get a picture of Ashley’s unhappy history – her mother took off and her semi-estranged father Tommy (Will Patton) is a big rig truck driver who resists family ties. But after a surprise visit, he persuades her to take a trip with him to his home in Nuevo Laredo across the Mexican border, handing her a generous wad of cash, which he explains as “a lucky streak.” En route back to Texas, Ashley discovers her father is a coyote, transporting illegal immigrants for $500 a head. Tommy’s attitude toward the uncertain future that awaits them is: “Walk away. Never look back.”
Watching the desperados hanging around the plaza in Nuevo Laredo hoping for a ticket north, Ashley sees a solution to her problems. Without her father’s knowledge, she rounds up eight people and takes them to a low point of the Rio Grande to cross, arranging for them to hide out in a shack on the U.S. side until she comes to retrieve them.
Tense and suspenseful, this is the movie’s most wrenching section, with Riker contemplating the human impact of borders on marginalized, desperate people from both sides. The disastrous crossing is played out offscreen, but the result leaves Ashley with a probably orphaned young girl, Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez), on her hands. Futile attempts to find the child’s missing mother follow, until Ashley figures her only choice is to dump Rosa with Mexican authorities.
The narrative meanders a little as that difficult process advances, leaving too much time to wonder such things as how she got the girl back into Mexico without questions and how she manages to avoid being implicated while dealing with police, immigration officials and children’s home supervisors. But Riker’s melancholy, humanistic lyricism helps overcome these concerns. Even more so, the delicacy with which the bond develops between Ashley and Rosa – from standoffishness to anger to begrudging acceptance, and eventually, to trust and love – makes the scenes dramatically persuasive.
While Cornish’s Spanish is perhaps a little too clean and unaccented to be that of a working-class Texan girl, her performance is riveting, channeling an air of Jodie Foster in her English-language scenes. She plays Ashley’s slow transition – from helplessness and selfish expediency to devastated culpability and hard-won self-knowledge – with a conviction that is no less stirring for being so understated. Having shown his skill at working with non-professional actors in La Ciudad, Riker gets a moving performance of complete naturalness and watchful intensity from young Hernandez. Patton also etches a vivid character in his handful of scenes.
The director’s only significant misstep is in the final reel, where after showing rigorous restraint and avoiding sentimentality for the duration, he gives into movie-ish emotional manipulation in a too-tidy wrap-up. But The Girl has enough strengths to make it haunting despite this.
Underscored by Jacobo Lieberman and Leonardo Heiblum’s gentle guitar- and string-based score, the visuals convey a strong sense of place, from the flat fields and dusty streets of South Texas to the dangerous shadow world of the Mexican border town to the beautiful countryside of Oaxaca, where the journey ends. The comparatively idyllic feel of those scenes in a farming community raises other complex questions, which resonate after the film is over, about immigrants in some cases leaving behind a humble but peaceful existence to take their chances on what can be a brutally unaccommodating life in the north.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival
Production companies: Journeyman Pictures, in association with Axiom Films, Sin Sentido Films, Bonita Films
Cast: Abbie Cornish, Will Patton, Maritza Santiago Hernandez, Austin Wayne West, Annalee Jefferies, Luci Christian, Angeles Cruz, Isabel Sanchez Lara
Director-screenwriter: David Riker
Producer: Paul Mezey
Executive producers: Philipp Englehorn, Nick Quested
Director of photography: Martin Boege
Production designer: Salvador Parra
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum
Costume designer: Mariestela Fernandez
Editors: Malcolm Jamieson, Stephanie Ahn
Sales: Goldcrest Films
No rating, 94 minutes
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