Review by Sean Boelman
Sometimes, the most terrifying films of the year aren’t horror movies, but those which are stark and shocking depict the harsh reality in which we live. Fernanda Valadez’s feature debut Identifying Features is just that: an unflinchingly personal movie that challenges audiences with its nuanced approach to difficult subject matter.
The film follows a mother who travels across Mexico searching for her son that the authorities claim died while trying to cross the border into the United States. It’s a truly heartbreaking story, but the script (co-written by Valadez and Astrid Rondero) doesn’t go for low-hanging fruit, instead blending meditative drama and slow-burn thriller to achieve its emotional effect.
Something else that really stands out about the movie is that it isn’t didactic. Of course, Valadez has a stance on the issues surrounding the immigration crisis, as one would expect of any film about the topic, but she seems more interested in having the audience come to it on their own. Rather than telling the audience what to think, she shows them the reality in a way that only leaves one option.
It’s very easy to connect to the protagonist because Valadez and Rondero write her in a way that is immediately compelling. The arc of the character is really interesting because it blends so many different emotions that we are used to seeing on screen, but rarely together. The result is often staggering in its weight.
The most impressive thing about the movie is the leading performance from Mercedes Hernández. Her performance is quiet, and she doesn’t even have much dialogue for significant portions of the film, but it’s one of the most powerful turns of the year nevertheless. The amount of emotion she is able to get out of even the smallest of moments is truly impressive.
Additionally, the movie is quite beautiful in a visual sense. The aesthetics are just as restrained as the script, but despite not being too flashy, it still manages to have some great moments. Even though most of the scenery in the background is rather desolate, Valadez contrasts it with the suffering the protagonist is experiencing to create an interesting effect.
That said, the film does make one significant misstep, and that is including a subplot involving another immigrant returning home to Mexico. The way in which this ties into the overall narrative is mostly effective, but there had to have been a better method of doing the same thing while further developing the lead’s emotional arc.
Identifying Features is a wonderfully nuanced movie that feels like the type that will sadly go under-the-radar. However, the powerful story and phenomenal lead performance will allow this to stick in the mind of those viewers that do seek it out.
Identifying Features is now streaming in a virtual sneak preview run. Tickets can be purchased here.