Next to a Dane Cook comedy, few genres inspire less enthusiasm than the social issues drama -- movies that set out to make an impassioned statement about some kind of local, national or global problem, but neglect to do so in a dramatically compelling way. David Riker's The Girl would seem to fall into this category, given that it's been specifically rigged to address a topic that's very much in the news today: illegal immigration across the U.S./Mexico border. Fortunately, the film has a solid grasp on character and story to accompany its strong social conscious.
Riker's guide to the loaded immigration subject is struggling single mom Ashley (Abbie Cornish), who tries her hand at a career as a Coyote in the hopes of earning enough money to win back custody of her young son. Needless to say, she quickly learns that she shouldn't quite her day job at Wal-Mart. Smuggling a group of immigrants along the back roads of a Texas border town, Ashley gives them instructions to proceed on their own past a certain point and rendezvous with her at an isolated shack. When she arrives, only three members of the original group are there, the rest having fled back to Mexico after being spotted by a border patrol helicopter. One of these stragglers is a young girl named Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez) whose mother vanished in the chaos. Far away from her village, with no other guardian or family members on this side of the border, the only person who can help Rosa is Ashley. Doing so, however, might cost her custody of her own son, just when she seems on the verge of being able to bring him home.
It's unfortunate, but not all that shocking, that The Girl is yet another immigrant story that's told from the perspective of a white American. Though we're invited to sympathize with Rosa, her primary function in the film is to serve as the catalyst that instigates Ashley's personal growth, as well as her evolving consciousness to the plight of the men and women who are forced by circumstance or economics to sneak across the border. (It's not unlike the way The Visitor was all about Richard Jenkins's uptight white guy, rather than the titular visitor.) The annoyance inspired by the movie's default POV is mitigated somewhat by Cornish's poised, well-judged performance, which transcends many of the movie-of-the-week clichés written into the script and creates a real person out of a walking, talking stand-in for the Caucasian audience the film has obviously been written for. The various discoveries that Ashley makes on her road to enlightenment aren't particularly novel, but Cornish plays them with honesty and develops a nice rapport with her young co-star that sets the stage for a final act that packs a light, but noticeable emotional punch. Make no mistake: The Girl is still more "good for you" than "good," but at least it supplements its feature-length lecture with a pair of good performances and a decent payoff.
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