Frontera might be one of the films that has seen production in this post Paul Haggis climate of showcasing overlapping stories of societal injustices and difference rolled into a single film, but thankfully it’s a well acted, almost never maudlin, and straightforward tale of illegal immigration from both sides of the issue. It probably won’t generate a lot of traffic from audiences or awards pundits, but it’s solid in its own well meaning, but sort of forgettable way.
Miguel (Michael Peña) is a seasoned veteran when it comes to crossing the border around a relatively unprotected and unwatched patch of desert on along the Mexican border with Arizona. He’s working towards making enough money to legally move to the U.S. with his pregnant wife (Eva Longoria) for a better life. He’s asked to help bring along an entitled, somewhat criminal minded buffoon (Michael Ray Escamilla) as a favour to his family, but his charge’s lack of survival skills and common sense are the least of his troubles. They come across a kindly woman (Amy Madigan) on horseback that helps them, only to be violently knocked off her horse and killed in the fall after a trio of asshole teens decided it would be a good idea to hide out in the passage and fire off some rifle rounds to scare the shit out of the Mexicans. Making things worse for Miguel: the woman’s husband, Roy (Ed Harris), is a former local sheriff. While Miguel rots in jail, his wife decides to make her own decidedly dangerous journey across the border to be by her husband’s side.
This debut feature from director and co-writer Michael Berry feels tired, but for once that should be construed as a positive. These characters that inhabit this border town world are all too used to the effects of illegal immigration. They’ve seen positive stories and negative stories on both sides, and Berry never goes out of his way to display the opposing viewpoints, remaining relatively apolitical on his overarching subject. It’s not a murder mystery in any way because the audience knows exactly who’s responsible about twenty minutes in. Those first twenty minutes establish how tired and complacent both communities have gotten towards the situation, suggesting a more sprawling character study than the rest of the movie can adequately follow through on. Everything that follows those first twenty minutes, however, take their cues from the Crash school of filmmaking where everyone has to struggle on their own for a brief fleeting moment of understanding.
What makes Frontera a cut above other similarly minded knock-offs, however, is the fact that there have been so many films cut from the same cloth that can’t reach the emotional gravity of the real life fears they have based their stories around. While Berry somewhat distressingly fails to remind the audience of the plight of the killers themselves for far too long of a stretch (until a somewhat convenient plot twist to lead us into the final third), he has enough nuance to handle the other segments and enough sense to let his well constructed cast take the reins from there,
There’s no one better at conveying stress and weariness at the same time than Ed Harris, and while his role here isn’t massive since Berry decides to focus more studiously on Peña and Longoria, he’s the anchor the film needs to succeed. Roy’s a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who has been forced to live in a world where things aren’t always a black and white issue. He’s vaguely bigoted, but he’s also too good of an ex-cop to believe that everything about the circumstances surrounding his wife’s death add up as neatly as the new sheriff (an equally well-honed turn from Aden Young) wants him to believe. Harris gives what could have been a one-note character the graceful hints of emotion and conflict needed to make him understandable and relatable instead of categorically loathsome or overly cuddly. It’s a performance that feels real and lived in.
Equally lived-in is the work from Peña, who plays Miguel as a man who probably deep down expected something terrible like this was about to happen in his life regardless of how careful he was or how many times he had made this trip before. He’s forced to make hard choices in his journey, and the film shows how unlike other people trying to immigrate illegally, Miguel has never become hardened by circumstance or tended toward anything more illegal than what he was already doing. He’s a man of conviction in a bad place, and a scene where he breaks down in his prison cell out of frustration might be the best in the film: a moment of pure catharsis that Berry has been building towards the entire time.
But the real revelation here is the stripped down work of Longoria in what’s easily the best performance of her career. The things that her suffering wife with be forced to endure in her vastly more problematic journey to the states are there to showcase the dark side of illegal immigration, filled with profiteers and snakes with few morals and little respect for the people they claim to be helping. Longoria gets the chance to play a strong female character that’s pushed to the limits. She doesn’t have much dialogue, but it’s remarkable what she can do with simple glances from a pair of knowing eyes.
Visually, Berry makes the most of his dusty trails and quiet towns, but he could have a better handle on how his film ultimately gets edited together. The pacing often feels a bit off and at times somewhat illogical in where it decides to place its emphasis. It all comes together ultimately in a more or less linear fashion, but the decisions on who should be followed at what time are kind of random, with Longoria not really factoring into the story for a full hour and everything involving the teens becoming non-existent.
Still, these films can be so easily botched that it’s nice to see one that has its head on mostly straight, and even better that it can convey sometimes controversial points without melodramatic grandstanding or pandering to the audience.