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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
  • Abbie Cornish in a scene from the movie "The girl."
Abbie Cornish in a scene from the movie "The girl." (Brainstorm Media )

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.

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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.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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