I knew nothing about this film when I bought a ticket. Screening as part of the American Essentials Film Festival, it suited my schedule and its story about undocumented teens at a US high school trying to make a future sounded interesting. What completely surprised me was to find out, during the closing credits, that it was directed by Matthew Newton. Yes, that Matthew Newton. He’s not my favourite person but he did a remarkably good job at showing the vulnerabilities of people whose human rights are threatened.
I’m going to have to guess at the spelling of the names of the three lead characters as, oddly, they are missing from cast information. Mussa (Jamal Mallory-McCree) is from Guinea and lives with his mother, sister and younger brother in an apartment that they can barely afford. Sophia (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) is from the Dominican Republic, living with an abusive uncle and his family. Elissa (Raquel Castro) is Peruvian and is valedictorian of their year. All three are brilliant students and their English teacher, Jackie (Julianne Nicholson), has quietly arranged for them to meet a friend, pro-bono immigration lawyer Isaac (Denis O’Hare), to see if he can get them papers to stay in the US.
Without documents, they must remain out of trouble and can’t bring attention to themselves, not even catch a bus as they will be asked for ID. This means having to put up with abuse and exploitation, being dishonest with friends, not hanging around in the street, missing out on opportunities and having to look for colleges that don’t ask too many questions. Isaac is blunt when he meets them; they’ll have a much better chance of getting papers if they can prove their family suffered from ‘genocide, genital mutilation or dictators.’ At first this privileged lack of compassion seems shocking but, of course, it is the system it stems from that is lacking.
Mussa and Sophia are the core of the story, both their individual challenges, anger and choices and the way they interact with each other, the commonality of their experience. Elissa’s character is explored less and serves to bookend the film, at first with optimism and then with gravitas.
There are some great moments; the one that sticks in my mind is the interview between Isaac and Sophia, it was the one scene where I could not look away. There is also some clunky dialogue – Jackie and Isaac spouting platitudes – and plot weaknesses – Mussa’s mother’s inexplicable obstinacy. Overall, though, it allowed me to better understand why supporting human rights is vital.
Have you seen this film? let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.