Directed by: David Riker
Written by: David Riker (screenplay)
Starring: Abbie Cornish, Maritza Santiago Hernandez, Will Patton and Angeles Cruz
There’s a scene in The Girl, David Riker’s ferociously personal film about immigration, that serves as a more scathing and succinct indictment of American policy than almost any news story could. Ashley (Abbie Cornish) has recently discovered that her border-crossing semi-truck driving father (Will Patton) smuggles in illegal immigrants from Mexico with his legal corporate cargo. The point of his character is to illustrate how corporations have an easier time crossing the border than people.
The Girl is anchored by a fantastic performance from Cornish, a mother with a son in foster care who turns to smuggling illegal immigrants across the border for extra cash. She works at a Wal Mart-like megastore and is a recovering alcoholic, but Riker’s handling of her desperation is compassionate. Most of the screenplay is overtly political and Riker does little formally to mask this, so it can at times feel a little too heavy-handed, but Cornish, Patton and the young newcomer Maritza Santiago Hernandez bring crucial humanity to it.
Hernandez plays Rosa, a girl traveling with her mother on Ashley’s first attempt at helping immigrants cross into the U.S. This maiden expedition turns disastrous when a border patrol helicopter dips down directly above the river as they are crossing, forcing many of to be swept up in the current and drown.
Rosa is separated from her mother after this disturbing incident, and Ashley is unable to kick her maternal instincts. Their relationship forms the crux of the movie’s narrative, as Ashley ventures further and further into Mexico to try and reunite Rosa with her mother or, if she’s dead, another living relative. For the most part Riker is successful at building emotional moments around the political points he is trying to make, but in the end the movie is too much of a whisper to be fully effective.
Cornish, an extraordinarily underrated Australian actress, mastered Spanish for her role and has a passable southern drawl. She is consistently unmissable even when the movie moves past its edgier beginning and becomes much safer. Had it pursued the corporate point it pursued in the beginning and not discarded it for a more palatable mother/daughter-esque relationship, it may indeed have been a masterpiece.
That being said, there are so few hard-hitting American movies made year to year that address the hypocrisies and ugly truths of immigration policy that the movie is necessary simply for those reasons. Frozen River, a very similar 2008 drama with an incendiary performance from Melissa Leo, addresses the same issue in the North and is a much better movie overall.
The Girl is more about showing the differences in perspective between the people living here and those who are trying to cross over, though, and not just about an Anglo woman trying desperately to make ends meet by turning to smuggling people across the border. Ashley is a jaded lower class worker who believes she lives in poverty; Rosa is from a small farming community where she believes she has “everything.” Ashley is unhappy because America promised a false dream to her and didn’t deliver. If anything, she finds more happiness and purpose in Mexico.