"Identifying Features" was just named the Best International Feature by the Gotham Independent Film Awards, and it's available this Friday, January 22nd, 2021, as part of The Film Lab's Virtual Cinema locally.
From Mexico comes a bold, personal and tragic story of what people face at the southern U.S. border. "Identifying Features" is about a mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), whose son, Jesus (Juan Jesus Varela) sets off for a better life in America with his neighbor. But word never comes back from Jesus that he made it, and when the neighbor boy is identified as deceased after a bus hijacking, Magdalena sets out to discover the fate of her lost son.
Crossing her path is the young Miguel (David Illescas), a boy not unlike Jesus, who made it to America but has now been deported. Miguel is not able to find his mother back in Mexico, and so he and Magdalena have a lot to offer each other in their grief, and in their search for answers.
It's a powerful narrative directed with brash confidence by first-time director Fernanda Valadez, but a linear, straight-forward telling doesn't seem to be of interest to her. Much of "Identifying Features" feels like a fever-dream, with sequences that feel lifted from a Terrence Malick film. That's high-praise depending on what you think of Malick, or it could be seen as a slight if Malick's dreamy cinematic style happens to frustrate you more then it inspires you.
This leaves "Identifying Features" in the realm of "critical darling" as opposed to a potential mainstream hit...a film that cinephiles might love but one that might be inaccessible to many. Which, in some ways, is a shame given the timely subject matter and the public's need for more understanding as to what is happening at the U.S./Mexico border. The story is a powerful one, but it might be too cerebral, too meta, for the average movie-goer.
Its recent Gotham Awards win has definitely raised the profile of this little film, beautifully and authentically shot in the rural village of Guanajuato, Mexico, and there is a lot to admire about "Identifying Features." It humanizes what has become a polarizing political issue, and highlights the risks and fears associated with dreaming of a better life.
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Starring: Mercedes Hernandez, David Illescas, Juan Jesus Varela.
Co-Written and Directed by Fernanda Valadez (feature-film debut).
"Identifying Features" is available locally on Virtual Cinema at The Film Lab on Friday, January 22nd, 2021.
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