The debut film from Fernanda Valadez is a quietly tense and brutal descent into the borderlands, as a woman searches for her lost son
This debut feature from first-time filmmaker Fernanda Valadez is not strictly what you'd call “horror,” though with its anxious tone, jarring soundtrack, and what might be an appearance from the devil himself, it certainly fits the criteria. It also helps that Identifying Features takes place in Mexico, close to the US border, in an unforgiving region one could very well consider as a kind of “hell on Earth.”
Painting an uncompromising but not overtly political picture, writer-director Valadez draws together two lives to tell interconnecting stories of the migrant experience. There's mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), whose son, Jesús, has gone missing after taking a bus ride close to the US border, and whose travel companion has recently been found dead. Then there's Miguel (David Illescas), recently sent back across the border into Mexico after living illegally in the United States for five years.
With her son also presumed dead, the authorities pressure Magdalena to sign the documents to make it official. She's unwilling to do so without proper evidence, though, and so leaves her hometown, trailing a loose series of clues, just as Miguel sets out from the border in search of his own mother. These two paths collide, leading the pair deep into the wilderness, searching for answers, while dodging bandits, cartel members, and militia.
Despite the subject matter, Identifying Feature is a surprisingly quiet film, where the constant threat of danger lurking in the peripherals creates a relentless, sickening tension through every frame. Yet Valadez makes a point to contrast the tide of evil with small acts of kindness, as strangers do their best to aid Magdalena in her quest.
As well as probing immigration, the film also doubles as a moving exploration of a mother's unbreakable will – that unstoppable sense of duty that allows somebody like Magdalena to go to hell and back without consideration for her own safety. She can accept her son's death, but not his disappearance. Not knowing how he died is somehow worse. The movie's dark, dream-like aesthetic does well to reflect Magdalena's state of mind as she traverses the territory, as though not quite sure that any of this is really happening. Of course, in real life, the threat of violence is but a common reality for so many living in the region.
Hernández gives a wide-eyed and naturalistic performance, her tiny frame so out of place in a merciless land of cutthroats and killers. Fear sits on her face the entire time; she appears perpetually on the verge of tears. Yet she never cracks, even when faced with the possibility of death. It's a purposely unshowy turn, but there's something very real in Hernández's frozen expression that the entire film is able to draw its power from.
If Identifying Features stumbles slightly in the denouement, perhaps because an element of its conclusion feels drawn from a lesser film, the consequences still land with a devastating thud of inevitability and sadness. As confident a debut as you'll be likely to find, this timely drama is made more haunting in its refusal to give answers about the plight of a people abandoned to corruption, indifference, and lawlessness.
Identifying Features is now streaming on various digital platforms.Where to watch