Identifying Features

By Gary M. Kramer.

The austere approach of Identifying Features contributes to the film’s haunting quality,,,,, (while) No Man’s Land‘s bluntness is why it is ineffective.”

Two films that deal with characters crossing the U.S.-Mexican border are being released January 22. Identifying Features is a potent drama, but No Man’s Land is a preachy morality play.

At the start of director/cowriter Fernanda Valadez’s superb debut, Identifying Features, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) is seen in a doorway of his modest family home in Guanajuato. His mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) recounts in voiceover that he and his friend Rigo (Armando García) were going to Arizona. Two months have passed, and Magdalena has not heard from her son. She and her Rigo’s mother, Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) call on the authorities, who explain there is “no crime to pursue.” When they show Chuya victim photographs, she learns that Rigo is dead. Magdalena, however, lives in hope that Jesús is still alive, and is determined to find her son.

Valadez crosscuts her story with two other searches. Olivia (Ana Laura Rodriguez) is a doctor who gets a call about her son, Diego, who went missing four years ago. Likewise, Miguel (David Illescas) is being deported, and a stunning tracking shot follows him returning to Mexico.

Magdalena encounters Olivia on her journey, and Identifying Features shows the kindness of strangers like her, or a woman at a bus company who guides Magdalena to seek out Regis (Bertha Denton Casillas, voiced by Carmen Ramos) at a migrant shelter who may have useful information.

Eventually, Magdalena meets Miguel. What transpires between this young man returning to his mother, and this mother who is desperately searching for her son, is both incredibly powerful and quite chilling. Valadez reveals some horrific and perhaps hidden truths about the perils of border crossing. And yet, her film has a fable-like quality to it. (A difficult but critical sequence is recounted in a dialect without subtitles and features “El Diablo”). Much of Identifying Features is shot starkly, beautifully, like an American Western. And the town where Magdalena meets Miguel is abandoned for good reason.

This austere approach contributes to the film’s haunting quality, as does Hernández’s quiet, dignified performance. The actress is heartbreaking, especially when she is making an impassioned plea for help.

What Magdalena ultimately discovers is shocking. That it is steeped in a painful reality makes Identifying Features all the more devastating.

Director Conor Allyn’s well-meaning drama, No Man’s Land, takes its title from the gap between the U.S. and Mexican borders. Jackson Greer (Jake Allyn, who co-wrote the film with David Barraza) is a pitcher who preparing for a tryout with the Yankees. Yet he is reluctant to pursue baseball; Jackson is more interested in staying on the family ranch with his parents, Monica (Andie MacDowell) and Bill (Frank Grillo), and his brother Luke (Alex MacNicoll), breaking horses not throwing fastballs.

When Mexican immigrants break through the fence on the Greer’s property, and some of their steers get loose, Bill and Luke head off to recover the cattle. They also encounter a group of Mexicans crossing into the U.S. and a skirmish occurs. Jackson arrives, gun in hand, and kills Fernando (Alessio Valentini), the son of Gustavo (Jorge A. Jimenez), a coyote. When Ramirez (George Lopez) a Texas Ranger arrives, Bill confesses to killing Fernando in self-defense to protect his son’s future prospects.

However, Jackson is wracked with guilt. He returns to the scene of the crime and finds Fernando’s wallet. When Ramirez arrives, Jackson flees, and heads to Mexico. It eventually becomes clear that he wants to return Fernando’s wallet and make peace with Gustavo.

No Man’s Land wants to be a noble story of understanding, and yet much of it is slow and clunky. Director Conor Allyn depicts some of Gustavo’s grief, and the film is sympathetic towards his character, who seeks revenge for his son’s untimely death.

But mostly the filmmaker focuses on Jackson’s experiences south of the border. The American’s observation, “Mexico is not like I thought,” encapsulates attitudes and stereotypes. Many of the Mexicans Jackson meets act kindly towards him. He is picked up by Hector (Juan Carlos Remolina) and works on his farm, charming his daughter Victoria (Esemeralda Pimentel). He takes a bus ride and befriends a mother and her son, bonding over Huck Finn (an obvious metaphor). He also is treated well by Martín and Rosa (Julieta Ortiz), a couple he encounters.  The only trouble he has—other than being on the run from Ramirez—is his run in with Luis (Andrés Delgado), a violent coyote that Gustavo eventually teams up with in an effort to catch Jackson himself.

The film’s chase narrative is hardly gripping. An action set piece where Luis shoots at Jackson, who uses his pitching arm to throw a rock and injure his enemy, lacks tension. Even as Ramirez tracks Jackson down to bring him home and mete out justice features a contrived scene where Jackson causes a distraction to escape from a sticky situation.

“No Man’s Land” briefly address the politics of the border as Monica and Bill talk about the situation “in our backyard,” and how they once used to leave water, blankets, and food out for the immigrants but stopped because there were soon so many of them. Their self-reflexive moment is more revealing than anything Jackson experiences. This may be because Jake Allyn delivers most of his performance with his grimy clothes. His dirty shirt and injured body convey more emotion than the actor’s blank facial expressions or line delivery. Jackson’s curiosity about Mexican culture seems to extend to him wanting to know what Spanish insults some of Victoria’s friends call him. Jake Allyn never makes Jackson endearing. Even when his character tries to do something right, he acts stupidly or selfishly.

As the film lumbers to its operatic finale, Allyn cudgels viewers with messages of grief, guilt, and forgiveness. Scenes of Jackson having visions of Fernando are especially heavy-handed. No Man’s Land‘s bluntness is why it is ineffective. This ambitious film imagines itself as a tragedy of sons’ lives being lost, and how families are ripped apart by border politics, immigration policies, racism, and violence. But mostly it shows the how compassionate the Mexicans are towards a white man who murdered an immigrant child.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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