By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: December 13, 2012
It takes a stupid crime and an avoidable tragedy to realize that the title of the American independent movie “The Girl” refers to two people. The first is Ashley (Abbie Cornish), a solitary, thorny rose of Texas who lives in a trailer park and punches a clock at a dead-end job. Her manager favors the Latina workers, or so she believes; worse, her young son, Georgie (Austin Wayne West), has been taken away from her. She visits him soon after the story opens, dropping by the foster home where he lives and that, with its tidy lawn and swing set, looks pretty as a picture. It’s a snapshot of the American dream that seems out of her reach and that will bring her and the second girl trouble.
The dustiness of the southern Texas town and the cramped modesty of Ashley’s trailer serve as a sharp contrast to the foster home that sits nestled in a suggestively alive, sustaining pocket of green. The director David Riker, working from his own script, sets up “The Girl” nicely. There are early flickers of drama, mostly from a social services worker who checks in on Ashley as well as from talk about a court decision that might reunite her with Georgie. Ashley looks and talks angry, yet even with her periodic outbursts — she yells at Georgie’s caretaker that only money separates her from her son — there’s something amorphous about her rage. There’s next to no urgency to her demeanor and, despite the loss of her son, not a lot that feels worryingly at stake.
If Ashley can’t settle on a target of her anger it’s perhaps because, as Mr. Riker suggests, that would force her to face tough self-truths. Yet while he makes it clear that she bears some responsibility for her situation, he fills in the bleak contours of her world better than he does those of her interior landscape. This limits Ashley, who, despite her frowns, has none of the hard edges that poverty can bring, none of its scars. She often registers as more petulant than wounded, almost spoiled, and also a bit blank. When her father, Tommy (Will Patton), visiting from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, swings by, laughing like a hyena and splashing booze, he gives the movie a jolt.
The plot thickens when Ashley learns that he has started smuggling people into the United States. Almost as if on a whim, she tries to do the same. Her efforts go calamitously wrong, and she ends up in Mexico caring for a girl, Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernández), who has been separated from her mother. Rosa wants her mom and Ashley wants to go home, and while Ashley resists Rosa, her resistance isn’t convincing or long lived. Ms. Cornish is a sympathetic presence, and she turns down her mouth a lot here, but her character’s hardness is a thin coat of lacquer and it chips off fast. What at first came across as a tale of dawning conscience increasingly starts to feel rigged.
Parked on the banks of the Rio Grande, Nuevo Laredo is one of the busiest borders on the continent; it has also unsurprisingly endured horrifying violence over the past decade. In May the corpses of 23 men and women, presumed victims of gang warfare, were found in the city, some without heads, others hanging from a bridge. Ashley’s father may have moved to Nuevo Laredo (another city plays the role here) because of his illegal pursuits, but his cavalier demeanor when he walks its streets and drinks in its bars rings as false as his smuggling. It’s even harder to buy that Ashley would, even with her hard-luck back story, enter into human trafficking with all the furrowed-brow gravity of a woman buying a new pair of huaraches.
People do stupid things all the time, on screen and off, and her impulsiveness isn’t beyond the bounds of storytelling reason. The larger problem is that Mr. Riker wants to have his social realism and his sentimental uplift too. The shadowy Mexican streets and the desperate people, Ashley’s bitterness and ghastly carelessness with other people’s lives, pull the movie in a direction that evokes the films of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“The Son”), with their stories of moral awakenings. The ease with which Ashley surmounts her terrible choices — as well as her voyage deeper into a Mexico where a saint hands out opportune absolution — regrettably tugs the movie elsewhere. You know that place: it’s where the cost of a white character’s new consciousness is paid for by black and brown lives.
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Written and directed by David Riker; director of photography, Martín Boege; edited by Malcolm Jamieson and Stephanie Ahn; music by Jacobo Lieberman and Leonardo Heiblum; production design by Salvador Parra; costumes by Mariestela Fernández; produced by Paul Mezey; released by Brainstorm Media. In Manhattan at the Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, 139-143 East Houston Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Abbie Cornish (Ashley), Will Patton (Tommy) and Maritza Santiago Hernández (Rosa).
and from the LOS ANGELES TIMES:
Review: Abbie Cornish surprises with border grit in ‘The Girl’
A desperate South Texas mother is left with an unexpected responsibility after smuggling humans in David Riker’s often moving new film.
December 13, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
Entrenched poverty on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border drive two mothers to desperate acts and dire consequences in “The Girl,” David Riker’s new drama starring Abbie Cornish.
The border town landscape is a world away from “La Cuidad,” the writer-director’s 1998 feature film debut about Hispanic immigrants in New York. But the filmmaker’s focus remains on the increasingly elusive American dream set against the backdrop of immigration.
In “The Girl,” the director’s second film, Riker toggles between two very different disenfranchised groups: the steady stream of humanity trying to survive a Rio Grande river crossing and a single mother in a South Texas town fighting to regain custody of her young son.
The story opens in the middle of a confrontation. Ashley (Cornish), anger barely contained, is pressing her boss for the raise she thought was coming. As Riker begins to sketch out the shape of her life — factory worker, no future — another tense conversation follows. This time with the woman that Social Services has placed her son with, in a house with a white picket fence and all the prosperity and peace that implies.
Ashley is a dirty blond with an attitude, living in a decaying trailer park where surprise visits from Social Services tend to find substandard conditions that never do her any favors in court. She chain-smokes through her rage, but there are not enough cigarettes in the world to ease the resentment she feels about her situation. It is an interesting stretch for Cornish and quite apart from her previous roles. Excellent as the refined Fanny Brawne, poet John Keats’ muse in “Bright Star,” here she is nobody’s sweetheart.
The film suddenly shifts gears with the reappearance of Ashley’s dad (a crusty Will Patton), his 18-wheeler, too much tequila at his place in Nuevo Laredo and her discovery that the cargo he’s moving across the border is human. With no real plan, she soon makes another trip to Mexico to see if she can pick up quick cash by slipping a few people across in the back of her station wagon.
Though it seems simple enough — drop her passengers at an isolated spot on one side of the river, drive around and pick them up on the other — it is clear from the tension in her every move and the growing fear of the people in her car that this will go badly. In the river crossing most are lost, probably drowned. The two men who survive quickly disappear. Ashley finds herself dealing with the other survivor, a girl of about 6, whose mother is among the missing.
The journey really begins at this point as Ashley tries to rid herself of any responsibility for Rosa (a winning Maritza Santiago Hernandez). But the youngster, with eyes nearly as angry as Ashley’s, is like judgment day, confronting her at every turn. The film is at its most compelling here as Rosa and Ashley figure each other out. Both are spitfires, Ashley initially sharp with the child, deflecting all of her anger at the unforgiving girl. But slowly they reach a kind of unspoken detente as Ashley begins to understand what it means to take care of another human being.
Fluent in the street Spanish that many near the Texas border absorb growing up, Ashley seems to find her comfort zone in Mexico despite the growing problems with Rosa’s fate. Cornish is better across the border too, far more at ease with Spanish than the South Texas accent that seems to elude her (at least half the film is in Spanish with English subtitles).
There are moving moments as Cornish channels the slow self-enlightenment necessary for Ashley’s character arc. And the actress is particularly good in the scenes with the promising young Hernandez. Ironically, as this well-intentioned film moves toward optimism it begins to lose its emotional power. “The Girl” is far better when it is looking back in anger.