In The Girl, writer/director David Riker returns to many of the same themes he pursued in his award-winning 1998 film La Ciudad, which told the stories of four Hispanic immigrants living in New York City. Immigration is still very much on Riker’s mind, although he approaches it from a very different perspective this time. A quiet character study, The Girl looks at immigration through the experiences of Ashley (Cornish), a young Anglo woman in South Texas who tries to become a coyote and illegally transport Mexicans across the border as a quick financial solution to her personal problems. Of course, things don’t turn out as planned, but the episode forces her to stop playing the victim in her own life and accept responsibility for her actions.
Ashley’s story is told somewhat elliptically, and her backstory comes through in pieces. Her young son is in protective custody, her impulsive attempts to win him back are self-defeating, the home visits from the social worker are a bust, and her own upbringing lacked for steady parental influence. She is poor, and blames all her problems on her poverty and injustices inflicted upon her by others. On a trip to Nuevo Laredo with her father (Patton), a big-rig truck driver, she discovers that he is a coyote and notices how well it pays. So she concocts a plan of her own, which unsurprisingly goes horribly wrong, but remaining in the back seat of her car is Rosa (Santiago Hernandez), a motherless child who attaches herself to Ashley.
Beautifully filmed by Martin Boege in Austin, Nuevo Laredo, and Oaxaca, The Girl tellingly details the three distinctly different environments. Less morally complex than Frozen River, in which Melissa Leo plays a financially insecure mother who turns to human trafficking in upstate New York, The Girl also looks at the desperation that underlies immigration from residents on this side of the border. Cornish’s performance is evocative and thoughtful, and Riker pulls a naturalistic performance from young Santiago Hernandez, much as he did with the nonprofessional actors in La Ciudad. Less realistic are some of the story’s trappings, such as Ashley’s attire, which never wrinkles or smells bad despite being lived in for days, and her dodgy Texas accent. A sentimental shift in the last reel of the film seems artificially designed to wrap up the story and demonstrate that a life lesson has been learned. It’s when it’s at its most contemplative that The Girl is at its best.