Written and directed by a New York-based filmmaker from Boston, about a Spanish-speaking blonde from Austin, Texas, played by an Australian, set on the border of southern Texas and filmed in Oaxaca in northern Mexico, The Girl sounds like a real mess. It isn’t. It’s just a slow, well-made human interest story on a very small scale, ultimately touching but as inconsequential as a slice of pineapple at a Hawaiian luau.
Abbie Cornish, the astonishing actress who impressed me greatly opposite Heath Ledger in the harrowing heroin addiction drama Candy, and most recently as the Duchess of Windsor in Madonna’s ill-
fated film W.E., plays Ashley, an unlucky single mother living in a trailer who has lost her son to Child Protective Services. Cynical and bitter, trying to make ends meet in a series of minimum-wage jobs with no assistance from anyone, and blaming everyone but herself for her poverty and misfortune, Ashley’s main focus is to make enough money to convince the social workers who drop by unannounced that she’s stable enough to regain custody of her 5-year-old. During a surprise visit from her truck-driver father, Tommy (Will Patton), she discovers that he is making quite a bundle on the side by transporting illegal Mexican immigrants across the border to Laredo. It’s against her principles, but seeing a way to improve her life and get her kid back, Ashley makes a dangerous choice and faces an unexpected destiny that changes her life forever.
Drug runners are mules. Migrant-worker smugglers are called coyotes. Making one mistake after another, her first job as a coyote goes terribly awry, people die as a result of her ignorance and inexperience, and Ashley finds herself saddled with a little survivor named Rosa, whose mother drowns crossing the Rio Grande. The harder she tries to ditch the child, the closer she comes to her own epiphany. Eventually her compassion for Rosa, who speaks no English, leads her back across the border into Mexico, on a long journey to get the child back to her village and her grandmother’s custody, encountering tough border guards, would-be rapists and other unsavory adversaries along the way, while racing against the clock to get back to Texas in time for a decisive court appearance in her own custody battle. On the arduous trip, a reluctant bond is formed in a story of parallel lives—a lost child and a lost woman with no moral center who finds redemption by taking on the responsibility for someone needier than herself.
Abbie Cornish learned Spanish for the film and speaks it convincingly, without a single trace of an Aussie accent. Her sensitive portrayal of a desperate mother willing to break the law to survive is nuanced and truthful, and she is matched, scene after scene, by her young co-star Maritza Santiago Hernandez, a child with no acting experience who was chosen over 3,000 schoolgirls competing for the role of Rosa. Beautifully shot by Hungarian-
trained Mexican cinematographer Martín Boege, The Girl enlightens with an unusual insight into the courage, durability and struggle of the Mexican people while taking the viewer on a guided tour of a piece of the country tourists never see. It’s a nice consciousness-raising idea, too—nothing groundbreaking or memorable, but well worth seeing as a reminder that, sometimes, meeting a challenge one least wants to face is its own reward.
Running Time 95 minutes
Written and Directed by David Riker
Starring Abbie Cornish, Maritza Santiago Hernandez and Will Patton