On the outskirts of Austin, Texas, Ashley (Abbie Cornish) lives a limited life, working a minimum-wage job in a chain grocery store. She's desperately trying to get enough money and resources together to get her son back from Child Services, but she's got a bad attitude and a messy apartment filled with open cans and liquor bottles. After a particularly stressful day at work, her father (Will Patton) takes her on an impromptu trip across the border for some relaxation, but on the way back she learns his newfound cash flow comes from transporting Mexicans into the US in the back of his trailer rig. Without any other way to improve her financial situation, she recklessly offers to pick up a group of people on the other side of the river for $500 a head, but a helicopter buzzes the group, and Ashley ends up responsible for a little girl named Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez), separated from her mother.
While it's true that there are plenty of dramas about the brutal experience facing Mexican people who hope to cross the border into the US, it's awkward how director / writer David Riker turns the emotional focus away from those people and onto Cornish, a young white woman who clearly made a hasty mistake. Admittedly, Riker's previous feature film, La Cuidad, appears to focus entirely on Mexican characters, so maybe he was just looking for a change of pace, or he wanted to create a film that didn't box itself in as a story about a single culture, both in terms of the subject matter and the audience (Riker draws some connections between Ashley's corner of Austin and the Mexican city where her father lives), but it doesn't quite sit right as the movie progresses.
Ashley is presented as a woman with an attitude problem, resentful of anyone who comes between her and her child, which she basically defines as "everyone": the store manager who won't give her a raise or a promotion, the woman who drops by to check out whether the living conditions in her trailer have improved, and the woman with Child Services who is taking care of the boy in the meantime are all villains in her mind, conspiring to keep them separated. Riker refuses to really pick a side; Cornish plays the role with perpetual irritation, but has lines like "find a poor person in Texas who doesn't have these same problems," which Riker backs up with his parallel. On one hand, few movies have the courage to follow a truly flawed, unlikable protagonist, but it doesn't sit well with the redemption story he has in mind.
The one prominent bright spot in the film is Hernandez, who is lovely as Rosa. The introduction of a cute kid can be a cheap trump card for a movie, but Hernandez creates a pleasing matter-of-fact chemistry with Cornish that never feels overly manipulative or overwrought. Mostly, her role is to try and goad Ashley into taking responsibility, which she does well, offering the kind of blunt assessment of the facts that children plainly see, even when adults try and talk up excuses. Will Patton is fine in his small role, another character in Riker's world who doesn't offer traditional cinematic charm. His advice to Ashley is cold and simple, and Riker doesn't linger on it enough for the audience to feel much sympathy.
Eventually, the film builds to some confrontations, both emotional and literal, but Riker hasn't prepared for the moment properly. The deck against Ashley is firmly stacked, and it's entirely possible that she doesn't deserve any of the pleasant outcomes to the scenario. Even if she managed to bond with a little girl, she remains responsible for a number of other people and incidents, which are apparently not as important as the question of whether or not she's learned how to grow up and be a better adult. The title of the film is The Girl, but it's disappointing how much this ends up referring to Ashley instead of Rosa.
A generic title and small, white fonts sort of vanish inside a cloudy gray, overly pretentious piece of artwork, making this a rare example of a poster I wish had been re-designed in some way for home video. I'm sure an alternative design would've just been big heads of the cast, but this cover feels like a poor summarization of what the movie's about: the "feather" imagery is kind of irrelevant, and the girl in question is hardly noticeable at a glance. The disc comes in a cheap, non-eco DVD case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, this is a decent SD-DVD effort. Colors are very nicely saturated. There is some softness to the image, but it feels natural, working with the colors to create a film-like appearance, although grain is only occasionally visible. Banding is minimal; artifacting is a more significant issue, frequently popping up in the darkness. Aliasing is also obvious on the burned-in English subtitles for the Spanish-language dialogue. A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is fairly unremarkable, mostly providing ambience as background for the dialogue; there is a minimal amount of music in the movie, so there's not much for the track to tackle. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing (for the English-language portions) and Spanish subtitles are also provided.
"A Filmmaker's Journey: The Making of The Girl" (20:50) doesn't make a great case for Riker, who talks about seeing the true conditions in Mexico for those hoping to cross. He makes a good case for a movie about "the myth of the American dream," about those trying to get across into America, and about an American citizen who lives in America but faces the same struggle against poverty. Were The Girl more even-handed, fully illustrating the characters trying to cross, the film might've been more successful. An original theatrical trailer is also included.
Technically, The Girl is impressive. Riker paints a great backdrop of Mexican culture behind Ashley's attempts to reunite Rosa with her mother, in a way that feels effortless and natural. Sadly, the writing lets down his skill as a director, painting himself into a corner with his protagonist that the viewer may not want to let her out of. Hernandez is wonderful, and the A/V quality is strong, but this is a rental at best, thanks Riker's failure to find a balance between his two leads.