IDENTIFYING FEATURES is a Bracing Border Journey

Writer-Director Fernanda Valadez’s award-winning debut is a small-scale epic of grief and determination set along the US-Mexico border

In Fernanda Valadez’s Sundance-winning debut feature Identifying Features, middle-aged mother Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) arrives at the Mexico-United States border searching for her son. He left to cross the border illegally months ago–and has vanished without a trace. After waiting in line for hours, trapped in the heat of slow-crawling bureaucracy, state officials collect DNA samples in the hopes of an eventual match with a recovered body. A glimpse of her son’s backpack among evidence prompts officials to push Magdalena to declare her son dead. A chance encounter with a fellow grieving mother (Ana Laura Rodríguez), however, steels Magdalena’s resolve–and she begins a winding journey along a path others have died walking in search of answers.

From Sin Nombre to La Jaula de Oro, a handful of films in recent years have granted a long-suppressed voice to the migrant communities who risk everything to cross the border. While setting these films immediately within these victimized communities lends them a needed sense of urgency, not many films have focused on those who don’t take the journey–yet are impacted by it all the same. There are countless families left behind for every person who vanishes along the border, left waiting for word that their loved ones have either survived the crossing–or that their remains have been discovered. While Magdalena drives the film’s narrative, Identifying Features drifts in the orbits of other mothers searching for their sons, as well as one son, Miguel (David Illescas), who searches for his mother after he’s deported back to Mexico. What results is a film that feels as justifiably grieving and angry as the characters within it–and whose impact lingers on its audience long after the credits roll.

Anchoring the film is Mercedes Hernández’s performance as Magdalena–whose devotion and determination to find her son is externalized by her every Sisyphean step down dusty abandoned roads or winding forest paths. Hernández speaks tenderly throughout — as Identifying Features unfurls, though, we learn this isn’t out of Magdalena’s initial fears or from being blindsided by the labyrinthine world of bureaucracy and violence she finds herself in. Rather, it’s out of a deliberate effort to seize leads where she can and follow them to their end — lest Magdalena scare off the wrong person or leave a vital piece of evidence or advice unheeded. In a film full of important yet incredibly delicate subject matter, Hernández and writer-director Valadez ensure that Magdalena and Identifying Features retain just as much agency and nuance without falling prey to easy stereotypes or generalizations about border plight.

The same can be said of the film’s two major supporting players. David Illescas’ Miguel and Ana Laura Rodríguez’s Olivia illustrate two widely different socioeconomic perspectives that, despite their own circumstances, find themselves just as wrapped up in the undiscriminating violence and danger of the border as Magdalena. Olivia is a seemingly affluent doctor whose son disappeared while on a drive to visit friends–and finds her search coming to an end just as Magdalena’s begins. Olivia also pointedly has the financial and travel resources to keep up such a draining search–which only underscores Magdalena’s relentlessness as she takes this arduous journey by foot, by bus, and eventually by shady boat crossing in the hopes that her son has avoided the same fate as Olivia’s. The two women share the same unshakable bond towards their sons, though — and in their brief scene together it’s as if a hope-lit torch is passed out of a shared moment of grief.

Miguel, as a further counterpoint, is a son on the opposite end of the search. After being deported back to Mexico, he crosses paths with Magdalena as he makes his way thorough dangerous gang-controlled territory to his home village–where he hopes his mother has managed to survive unscathed. The pair forge a surrogate parent/child bond of their own, through which Magdalena begins to piece together her son’s deeper motivations for leaving her–while Miguel is forced to reckon with his own guilt in leaving his mother behind.

This ebb and flow of guilt and grief is manifested in Identifying Features’ sparse yet evocative cinematography and editing, a credit to Claudia Becerril Bulos and the editing team of Valadez, Susan Korda, and Astrid Rondero, respectively. Features’ frames are full of wisps of flame and dirt, as well as ever-shifting darkness and light — creating a world of oppressive, elemental change whose exact sources of heat and misery are difficult to target and extinguish.

Much like her almost cosmically-predestined encounters with Olivia and Miguel, Identifying Features still retains further figures to come into Magdalena’s path — building to a climax that further underscores the random brutality at the heart of a conflict that seems as devoid of an ending as it does any sense at all. Valadez’s direction, however, is much like her protagonist’s determination — unwavering, headstrong, and willing to accept whatever truth can be salvaged at the end of the path. No matter how heartbreaking it may be.

Identifying Features is now playing in Virtual Cinemas courtesy of Kino Lorber. Support the efforts of the Austin Film Society and Kino Lorber by getting screening tickets here.

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