At a time when the plight of illegal immigrants pouring into the U.S. to escape world tyranny and seek a better life for their children is a central issue dominating the headlines, At the Gates could not be more relevant. It offers a harrowing look at the challenges and nightmares faced by both the undocumented immigrants working hard to earn their keep and responsibly assimilate into a new culture and the sympathetic American citizens who risk their own security to help them by employing them illegally. I found it imperfect but riveting.
AT THE GATES ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Anna, a widowed escapee from a political dictatorship in a country near Nicaragua, has been working as a housekeeper for an affluent family in Los Angeles for eight months when she brings along her college-age son Nico, hoping he can earn enough extra money to pay for his tuition. Members of the Barris family, whose spacious, elegant home they are hired to keep pristine, are sympathetic and compassionate.
But, on their first day working together, the immigration and customs police arrive without notice to inform the owners their staff is under investigation for their illegal immigration status. Instead of turning them in or sending them packing, Maryann and Peter Barris (Miranda Otto and Noah Wyle) take pity on their new servants and hide them from the authorities in the basement, confiscating their cell phones so they can’t make outside calls that can be traced, and providing them with safety from the cruel, indifferent world outside the gates. Both sides face dire consequences if the servants are found, revealed and identified. Apparently, if an employer hires or harbors an undocumented worker, the penalty could result in fines of up to $100,000.
Protecting Anna and her son Nico is an act of benevolence that backfires dangerously when Nico learns the Barris family members have insurmountable problems of their own. This access to information, coupled with the teenage Barris daughter’s generous supply of marijuana and blossoming sexual attraction to Nico, turns an already tense situation in the direction of disaster for everyone involved.
The writing and direction by Augustus Meleo Bernstein reveal personality characteristics in all of the principals that bring them slowly but vibrantly to life while exploring the needs, flaws, strengths and weaknesses that make them so vulnerable to each other and vital to the plot. Everyone takes a big risk, and the way Nico finds a way out for himself and his mother results in breaking the law in an even more calamitous way than living in America without papers. In this case, one side pays a greater price for the consequences than the other, but the characters are decent enough to make you care about their futures, no matter how bleak.
The answers to the problems about the immigration crisis raised in At the Gates are not all resolved satisfactorily, the likable characters are in worse trouble in the end than they were in the beginning, and the myriad details about harsh immigration laws are never explained believably enough to seem convincing—but considering the film’s strong emotional overall impact, my reservations are minor. When everything else gets shaky, there is always the finely tuned cast to consider: Miranda Otto and Noah Wyle never make a false move, while less familiar faces such as Vanessa Benavente as the troubled Anna and Ezekiel Pacheco as her traumatized son Nico enhance the film dramatically in supporting roles so powerfully played they often seem more inspired than the real stars. At the Gates is a noble film that forces you to think about both sides of a controversial issue in a new light. Not exactly a masterpiece, but highly recommended.