Frontera (2014) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence including a sexual assault, and brief strong language
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Ed Harris, Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Amy Madigan, Aden Young, Michael Ray Escamilla, Mia Stallard, Seth Adkins
Director: Michael Berry
Screenplay: Michael Berry, Louis Moulinet
Review published August 31, 2014
Frontera is what I like to call a 'humanist drama', which is a drama that tackles a polarizing subject head on -- this case being illegal immigration -- and does it by portraying people on both sides of the issue as honest and complex, instead of as symbols in an allegory. These films aren't overtly political in an obvious and heavy-handed way, though they are clearly made in order to call attention to a particular topic and, hopefully, at least from the filmmaker's point of view, shift your opinion in order to see the human element of the hot-button issue that many people are (sometimes literally) up in arms about.
In the film, Michael Pena (American Hustle, Gangster Squad) is Miguel, a Mexican attempting to cross the border again into the United States in order to find employment after learning his wife Paulina (a surprisingly good Longoria, In a World...) is now pregnant and they're going to need much more money in order to keep their family in good shape. Ed Harris (Planes: Fire and Rescue, Gravity) is Roy, a former sheriff on the other side of the border who owns the ranch that undocumented people from Mexico keep trespassing through, and he's tired of it, even though his soft-hearted wife Olivia (Harris' real-life wife Madigan, The Lifeguard) feels compassion for their plight.
When Pena and a fellow Mexican traveler (Escamilla, A Night in Old Mexico) are assisted by Olivia when she sees them sneaking through, they become public enemy #1 around these parts after she is killed falling off her startled horse when some teens decide to shoot rifles at the Mexicans to frighten them off. Roy's in a rage and aims to see justice done, while there's nary an ally for a Mexican in a small Arizona town tired of dealing with those crossing illegally over the porous border.
Pena is no stranger to these kinds of movies, having acted in other 'hot-button topic' dramas like Crash, Babel, and Lions for Lambs to name but a few notable ones. This is the second predominantly Spanish-language role in a row (after starring in the biopic, Cesar Chavez) for the Chicago-born son of Mexican immigrants, Michael Pena, who looks somewhat uncomfortable doing so, despite being a fantastic actor in his native English. The bilingual nature of the film does cause some stiffness in acting, whether it's Americans trying to speak Spanish (sometimes too well, for those who aren't supposed to know so much), or, like Pena, those who know Spanish but aren't authentic enough to come across as true native speakers.
Luckily, the dramatic elements eventually coalesce into an interesting and thought-provoking drama, and we're rooted into the characters and their plights sufficiently to be interested in what happens to them, even if there are occasionally herky-jerky moments from time to time. What's refreshing about Frontera is that its characters are real people, all with strengths and weaknesses, where no one is completely pious nor completely evil. It's nice to see in an American film in which Mexicans actually speak to each other in Spanish, and Americans also speak to them in Spanish when they don't know English; a more commercial Hollywood film would have done the opposite.
Although the set-up is entirely predictable, credit goes to first-time director and co-writer Michael Berry for taking a simple set of circumstances and allowing them to spin out in ways that are more complex than you might assume at first glance. When Paulina tries to cross the border herself, she is in a particularly vulnerable position, and the men helping her cross the border know it (they are called 'coyotes' for more reasons than one), and they know she will have no recourse in the United States for her complaints, regardless of whatever they might do to her. Meanwhile, there are no big reveals saved for the film's climax; Roy may be grieving and fighting mad, but he's not about to hang an innocent man.
Frontera doesn't condemn border enforcement, and even suggests that it's a necessary evil, even spotlighting a scene in which an American and a Mexican collaborate to maintain a barbed-wire fence to mark the border, even if it is futile. What appears to be the message is meant for those who see undocumented laborers as a scourge that people can take up arms and shoot when the government is lax. It also suggests that the road to America is a long and treacherous one for many Mexican people, and that risking life and limb is something they are loathe to do. This isn't a film trying to convert you to knocking down borders or embracing anyone and everyone who crosses the border illegally; this is a film that wants you to have some sympathy and understanding that the person being shot at is a real human being, just like you and me, who has a family whom they love and who needs them.
It's only in the final moment that the movie overreaches its bounds a bit by going for a powerhouse final shot, becoming the story told with symbols that it has successfully avoided up to that point. But by the time it occurs, we'll allow the sole indulgence, as the film has more than enough finer elements to help us think more deeply about this very real and very difficult problem that adversely affects a great many people in society on both sides of the border.
©2014 Vince Leo