A better but still flawed version of the story told four years ago in Frozen River, The Girl uses the perils of immigrating to this country without papers as a backdrop for a poor white American woman’s bumpy path to enlightenment. Abbie Cornish projects the same precocious girl power and impressive range she did in Bright Star, this time as an enraged and resentful young mother in Texas who blames everyone but herself for having lost custody of her son to the state (he’s living with a foster family). Over the course of the film, Ashley comes to understand the forces that have made her into a self-pitying, unreliable drunk, and Cornish makes that awakening clear without emotional grandstanding, conveying her character’s intense and mostly repressed emotions through small but seismic shifts in expression and posture.
More importantly, Ashley learns to take responsibility for her own actions, heading home—or so the film’s happy ending implies—to regain custody of her son by becoming the mother she never knew how to be. Unfortunately, she learns that lesson at the expense of a soulful little beauty named Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez). Hungry for the cash she’s convinced she needs to win back her son, Ashley tries to smuggle some people—including Rosa and her mother—across the Mexico-U.S. border, but she doesn’t know what she’s doing, and they pay a horrific price for her ignorance. Rosa is one of the few who survives the crossing, and though Ashley keeps trying to leave her to fend for herself, her conscience won’t let her abandon another child. So she becomes Rosa’s protector, at first resentfully and then wholeheartedly searching for the girl’s mother and then taking her home to her grandmother’s lovely little house in Oaxaca.
We see more of the immigrants here than we did in Frozen River, and they give the movie its most touching moments, like when Rosa’s grandmother mourns her daughter or when a small group trying to cross the Rio Grande at night is caught in the bright lights of a Border Patrol helicopter, the white underwear they were too modest to take off giving them away as it gleams in the darkness. Rosa’s suffering for Ashley’s sins is initially illustrated in painful detail too, as the little girl yells at the maldito coyote who led her into peril, stubbornly insisting that Ashley help her find her mother.
But empathizing with Rosa and her grandmother just makes it that much more frustrating when they morph into Ashley’s guardian angels, their pain receding into the background as the big-boned blond American wanders through their house and town, soaking in healing scenery and vibes. It’s easy to believe that life would feel a lot more dignified and meaningful in a little farming community in Oaxaca, at least to someone whose family has lived there for generations, than it does to angry, alienated Ashley in an Austin trailer park, but the last quarter or so of The Girl is a classic case of a first worlder filming the half-empty village of a less developed country as if it were Shangri La, all noble dignity, natural beauty, and timeless ritual. The lingering shots of an old goatherd’s face and of the masked and painted people celebrating a fiesta in the street feel particularly distancing and patronizing.
In the end, it seems, the film’s title refers to Ashley and not Rosa, and that’s a pity. If it could have done equal justice to both stories, this might have been more than just another well-meaning attempt by a guero to imagine life south of the border.