Devoid of a traditional score and brimming with captivating visuals, Identifying Features tells the story of a Mexican mother searching for the son who went missing on his way to illegally cross the border into the United States with a starkness that distills the narrative down to its most essential moments and emotions. The debut feature from Fernanda Valadez (who co-wrote the script with Astrid Rondero) unfolds as much in what’s on screen as in what’s not, as the camera focuses so closely on Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) that in even the most significant scenes we’re often only watching her and her reactions rather than ever seeing the authorities, aid workers and elders she meets along the way. Brief moments pack incredible meaning, like the slideshow of ephemera she reviews to potentially identify some of her son’s belongings, a single toddler sandal or weathered baseball cap in the mix. Every moment of the film is artfully realized, drawing us ever further into this particular migrant experience.
When Magdalena and Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) haven’t heard from their sons, who left together, in more than two months, they visit the authorities to inquire about how to enlist help to find them. Chuya gets indisputable confirmation that her son died on the journey, but there’s no such evidence for Magdalena, meaning she won’t give up hope he’s still alive until she knows otherwise for sure. With a small wad of cash from Chuya and nothing but the clothes on her back, she sets out to follow her son’s path north, inquiring with the bus company they used for any leads on his disappearance. From there, her investigation goes underground, as corruption, cartels and the general strife of the migrant community mean the authorities have little ways to legitimately help her find resolution.
Meanwhile, Miguel (David Illescas) finds himself deported from the US and, with no where else to go, on a similar journey to find something he’s lost: the family he left behind when he migrated years earlier. Both on their way to the same rural (and dangerous) region of Mexico looking for answers, Miguel and Magdalena cross paths, trusting each other enough to join the other’s journey and provide some mutual support and protection. While their days are filled with their respective searches, each the kind of endeavors that more often than not take them to places they don’t anticipate, in their quieter moments they share stories of their lives, what drives them and their shared uncertainty for what’s head in each of their lives. Both performances are quietly moving, ample in the sort of delivery that makes you want to lean closer to the screen to really hear what they have to say.
Valadez finds remarkable balance in prioritizing her protagonist’s story while inviting audiences to better understand the world in which it takes place. After learning of an attack on the bus her son was riding that the transportation company would just as soon brush under the rug, Magdalena is directed to spend the night at the nearby migrant center where she can rest before starting out on her journey in the morning. As she settles in, getting a warm meal for the first time since she set out on her search, Valadez makes special effort to afford the audience a sense of place; we see the migrants (mostly men) praying before sitting down for their meal, and in just a few frames the filmmaker has humanized an entire population of people Americans are all too quick to demonize in headlines and soundbites. It’s undeniably moving, as gut-wrenching as anything Magdelena and Miguel experience as the film unfolds. Ultimately a sad affair, Identifying Features is also something quite memorable, challenging us to empathize with a mother, a migrant, an entire community that isn’t often the focus of such grace and attention.
Identifying Features is now streaming in virtual cinemas.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!