‘Identifying Features’ (2020) is a Harrowing Look at the Dark Side of Border Crossing

beautiful cinematography is the backdrop for this distressing border-crossing drama…

The last four years, we (here in the U.S.) have been bombarded with news stories about the “hoards” of people trying to cross the border illegally — what we hear about far less, are the conditions that they are often trying to escape or the perilous journey they must embark on to reach the other side. For years, Mexico has been fighting an uphill battle against the drug cartels and their indifference for human life. Co-writer/director Fernanda Valadez gives us an up-close and personal look at this often untold story in her feature directorial debut “Identifying Features.”

Mercedes Hernández in “Identifying Features”

This harrowing film follows a mother (Mercedes Hernández) as she travels across Mexico in search for her young son who authorities say died while trying to cross the border in to the U.S. But is he really dead? The only proof is photographs of charred belongings. Refusing to give up hope, she risks it all on her quest for the truth, along the way getting unlikely help in the form of a young man who has just been deported back to Mexico and is own his own search to find his mother. The film does a great job of showing two different sides of the same coin — the effects and consequences of border crossing and the cartels that rule the country.

There are many long, silent scenes set against breathtaking yet eerie backdrops. Sometimes, the film is a little too slow and too somber with some odd shot choices thrown in. But the dire, real-life situation is brought to stark life on the screen through the beautiful cinematography of Claudia Becerril Bulos, Valadez’s direction and the raw, naturalistic portrayals from her cast — this is the films saving grace. The uncertainty and unknowing, fear and determination are obvious in the characters’ faces and demeanors. And sometimes the film slips into feeling more like a documentary, visually, without distracting from the seriousness of the story — it actually drives it home.

In the end, Valadez and her crew do a solid job of putting forth a confident film that shines a light on the irrational depravity and violence, the fight for survival and a mother’s relentless drive when confronted with so many obstacles. And don’t get me started on that cryptic, other-worldly gut-wrenching ending. And side note: it’s super dope that this film was shot mostly by female filmmakers! Even though “Identifying Features” leaves you a little wanting in terms of going more in depth into the motivations and machinations of the drug cartels (they are faceless, shadowy figures) and the devastation and trauma they leave in their wake, this is a story that lingers and stays with you long after you’ve watched it — you see the world a little different (especially the plight of those risking it all to cross the border for a new life).

“Identifying Features” opens tomorrow, Jan. 22nd, on Kino Marquee and virtual cinemas nationwide.