Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Girl

Writer-director David Riker made my 1998 top-ten list with his debut film, the lush black-and-white neorealist “La Ciudad,” four interwoven stories of Latin immigrants on the outskirts of New York City. It’s taken fourteen years for him to direct another film, and unfortunately “The Girl” isn’t worth the wait. It stars Abbie Cornish of “Bright Star” as Ashley, a poor single mother in southernmost Texas who’s lost her son to Child Protective Services and is trying her best to maintain the indicia they want to see: steady employment (a McJob at a big-box store), a residence with an address (a trailer park). Her truck-driving father (Will Patton) pops by unexpectedly, flush with cash and off to Mexico for a lost weekend – why doesn’t she come with? Ashley reluctantly does so, realizing only after they reenter the U.S. that the cargo Dad’s hauling back is actually Mexicans in need of work, each of whom has paid $500 to be smuggled in. The thought occurs to Ashley that some easy money might do her a world of good, which leads to an impetuous decision that will forever entangle her life with that of a young girl whose mother dies trying to cross.

Cornish is in almost every frame of “The Girl,” and turns in a solid performance full of smoldering rage. Alas, the subject matter and Riker’s treatment of it just isn’t compelling enough. We’ve seen immigrants’ stories told so much better recently – as in 2009’s “Sin Nombre” – that this movie feels improperly focused. A more interesting movie could be made about Ashley’s life without the immigration issue: whether her manager does, as she claim, give the Hispanic workers better shifts and more raises than her, and why; whether the CPS and related legal structure is in fact set up to help her get her son back or to keep him away from her and with wealthier foster families. There’s a real person trying to get out of Riker’s set-up, and it’s a shame we’re stuck with just her outline – and, of course, that none-too-appealing little girl.

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