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Stuck uncomfortably in a limbo between genre exploitation and message drama, writer-director Jesse Harris’s (Living Life) second feature-length film, Borrego, half-succeeds at the former but fails with the latter. It doesn’t help as well that Harris chose to center Borrego on a white American woman, giving her selective, biased POV preference over every other character. It’s not all bad, of course. Working with an ace-level cinematographer Octavio Arias, Harris crafts a handful of attention-grabbing images to go along with an equivalent arresting sequences centered on its central, mismatched duo and their existential flight through an unforgiving desert environment and the Terminator-like drug dealer and his minions chasing them down.
When we first meet Borrego’s ostensible protagonist, Elly (Lucy Hale, Truth or Dare, Scream 4), a new-to-the-desert botanist with an obvious preference for empty spaces over people-filled towns or cities, she’s not so much enjoying her work as allowing said work to dictate her actions and behavior. Elly fits into an overly familiar storytelling trope: Hesitant to speak or share her feelings or backstories, it becomes increasingly obvious she’s dealing with some kind of loss or life-changing disappointment in her past. Spoiler: Said character-revealing backstory will be revealed at a not-so-crucial moment somewhere in the back half of Borrego’s running time. Whether that revelation delivers the emotional impact Harris wants, however, is the key question: Sadly, it misses the mark, if only just.
What really matters, however, isn’t who Elly is, at least initially, or even her profession as a botanist, it’s that her field studies in the desert make her a witness to a light plane crashing nearby. Like any good Samaritan, Elly rushes in to help the stricken pilot, Tomas (Leynar Gomez), from the crashed plane, only to immediately realize she’s made a terrible, possibly fatal mistake. Tomas isn’t a local recreational flyer who may have lost his way and/or the innocent victim of a catastrophic engine failure. He’s a drug mule working for a cartel and with Elly’s unexpected arrival, a hostage taker, forcing Elly to help him transport whatever drugs they can collect from the fallen plane so they can head out to the planned rendezvous with Tomas’s fearsome, brutal boss, Guillermo (Jorge A. Jimenez).
While Tomas increasingly relies on Elly’s help and guidance to get him through the desert, their relationship unsurprisingly softening over time (though a barrier, language isn’t as insurmountable as it first seems), Guillermo suspects Tomas has betrayed him, stealing Guillermo’s property in the process. That, in turn, sets off a slow-motion, relatively non-urgent search and pursuit that feels like it was borrowed or at least inspired by the Coen Brothers’s Academy-Award-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men (minus, alas, the high stakes or the tension-tightening suspense). The involvement of a young woman, Alex (Olivia Trujillo), and the local sheriff, Jose (Nicholas Gonzalez), adds something non-marginal to the eventually combustible mix.
Best known for her series-long run on Pretty Little Liars, Hale might not have been the obvious choice for the de-glammed, survivalist-oriented Elly, but she manages to deliver a performance with some range and depth. Though stuck with a seemingly passive, reactive role, Hale succeeds at conveying the panoply of emotions Elly experiences on her literal and metaphorical journey. With the exception of Jorge A. Jimenez as Guillermo, less the result of any deficiencies in Jimenez’s performance than an underwritten, borderline caricature role, the remainder of the cast also deliver relatively grounded, naturalistic, in-the-moment performances. Ultimately, though, they can do only so much to elevate Harris’s flawed script.
Borrego will be released theatrically and OnDemand on Friday, January 14th.