Written by: Fernanda Valadez & Astrid Rondero
Starring: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez
Much gets spoken in generalities about the conditions down at the United States-Mexico border without fact or empathy in such a disappointing manner. Often the human factor gets lost when talking about people and their livelihood, which Identifying Features decides to take head-on with its harrowing tale. Hard-hitting and with a killer reveal, this feature captures the harsh realities of this environment.
When she no longer hears from her son following his attempt to cross the border, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) takes a trip to see if she can inquire about his well-being. As she gets closer, she learns of the horrid history of individuals going missing and winding up dead, which leaves her trying to find her son at any cost.
The sheer reality this feature displays on how young men often die in their efforts to provide for their families makes for an unpleasant yet purposeful viewing experience. Something that does not receive enough attention and something this film refuses to let slip by going unnoticed. As in the case of Magdalena, her son wanted to make it to the promised land in order to obtain funds to send back home, but the treacherous route means not everyone can make it. This leaves Magdalena to pray to hear word from her son or inquire about it, which sadly becomes a reality for many Mexican mothers as displayed in this feature. In fact, there’s a facility where dead migrants are stored and the family members can go view and confirm whether it’s their loved one. It highlights the title of this feature and contributes to what makes this such a harrowing experience.
Magdalena’s journey becomes one of continually not hearing about her son and merely trying to find him as she travels to different Mexican cities following the breadcrumbs with the hope of getting some sort of closure. It almost begs the question of what makes for a better solution for Magdalena. Whether it would be better to know definitively of his death or continue to search without a proper answer to the fate of her beloved child. The film very much battles with this horrifying situation and it unleashes small moments of brutality of this as well. The main thing this feature wants to get across and was alluded to before is the human element of everything going on. It does not render itself into becoming this fast-paced search in order to inject moments of grotesque violence. Everything happens with a measured purpose to show the horror of this situation in an unexciting but still terrifying manner. Yes, this still remains such a brutal experience, but none of it should be fun by any stretch of the imagination.
Much of the success comes from the assured direction by Fernanda Valadez, who contains a tight control of the story and the emotional work going on here. She never lets the narrative get away from her or let it devolve into anything more than a woman looking for her child along with the perils this journey has particularly on young men and boys. A journey meant for good that can cost them their lives in the end. Valadez makes this larger commentary while also fixating the story on a singular mother and the lengths she will go to, even to the point of putting herself in danger in the process. Valadez does such a tremendous job with this harrowing tale.
Valadez is also helped by the wonderful performance by Mercedes Hernández who carries the weight, pain, and stress of her character so well. Needing to contain her emotions in moments where it may be difficult and also being stoic as well, Hernández remains completely in control with this performance and does such a service to the story as a whole. She not only needs to represent this individual woman but also encapsulate the journey of many Mexican and Latine American women who stress about the status of their sons attempting this treacherous journey. She becomes this representative force and carries it all well in this performance.
Hard-hitting but authentic in its portrayal, Identifying Features does a splendid job and nails pretty much everything it sought to achieve as a story. It allows for some incredible symbolism, especially when it comes to visions of the devil and the gut-punch reveals it makes throughout definitely leave their mark by the time the credits roll. Very much its own thing and something that deserves plenty of recognition.