Using illegal immigration as a frame to explore the slow awakening of a tough-shelled young Texas woman, The Girl is a patient chamber piece about the emotional bruises left by poverty and neglect.
Even before we fully know her circumstances, Ashley (Abbie Cornish) introduces herself as a victim of race and class discrimination. A sullen single mother and minimum-wage drone in a south Texas supermarket, she opens the film with a request for a raise. When denied, she refuses to accept her supervisor's criticism of her attitude.
"Everyone knows you like Mexican girls best — the place is full of them," she snaps back, storming past gossiping Latinas as though she were the foreigner.
In a sense, she is. Pale and blonde and uncomfortable in her own skin, Ashley is a coiled spring of resentment. Following her through a prickly encounter with the foster mother of her 5-year-old son — removed by the state for reasons not immediately revealed — and a tense, unannounced visit from child welfare, we begin to see the extent of her problems.
And when her feckless father, Tommy (a perfect Will Patton), re-enters her life, flourishing wads of cash and the offer of a tequila-filled night in Mexico, her acceptance feels less like a step toward family than a fall off the wagon.
Written and directed by David Riker, who built his 1998 drama La Ciudad around immigrants in New York City, The Girl is stingy with backstory but rich with visual clues. Traveling from the broken-down trailer park where Ashley lives to a busy plaza in Nuevo Laredo, from the banks of the Rio Grande to the tree-lined hills of Oaxaca, Riker and his cinematographer, Martin Boege, give each a distinctive flavor. (Outbreaks of real-world border violence reportedly sent the production crew scrambling often for substitute locations.)
Potholes in the plot — which drives Ashley into a horrific experiment with the coyote business — leave us with questions but don't distract from the film's central observation of a young woman learning to take responsibility. In this, Riker is blessed with not only a fiercely intelligent and understated performance from Cornish, but with a memorable turn from young Maritza Santiago Hernandez as Rosa, the Mexican girl who becomes Ashley's unasked-for moral burden. Hernandez has never acted before, and perhaps because of this, her rough interactions with Cornish have an emotional authenticity that's exceedingly rare.
Less rare is the niggling discomfort some may feel in the film's apparent treatment of brown people as catalysts for white redemption. The impression intensifies in the final moments, as Ashley ruminates on the simple dignity of a small farming community — a privileged seeker of "primitive" wisdom — but I don't think Riker intends that reading.
What he seems to be saying, in an observation underscored by Ashley's desperate economic and familial circumstances, is that deprivation comes in many colors, but exploitation is a one-way street. (Recommended)