Abbie Cornish is from Australia, and yet something about her makes filmmakers think of Texas. The blonde, apple-cheeked beauty already played a small-town Texas girl in Stop-Loss, and now she returns to the Lone Star State in The Girl, as a young San Antonio mother who’s forced to get her act together. Her performance is the best thing about this wispy immigration movie that tries to do too much even as it keeps its ambitions in check.
She plays Ashley, a single mom who’s trying to regain custody of her 5-year-old son (Austin West) after a DUI conviction. Scraping a living as a clerk at a big-box retail store, she thinks all her problems will go away if only she can get some money. Then her truck driver dad (Will Patton) suddenly shows up on her doorstep flush with cash, and it becomes clear that his “lucky streak” has come from smuggling immigrants across the border. Seeing all the poor Mexicans in Nuevo Laredo desperate to make it to the other side gives her the ill-advised idea of getting in on the action.
This is only the second feature for writer-director David Riker, but he has had extensive experience working in Mexico, having co-written the intriguing Mexican science-fiction film Sleep Dealer. His movie clocks in at a slender 87 minutes, and he does a fair job of building up suspense in the first third or so, detailing how a troubled woman who tends to blame other people for her problems might land in this business. Yet when Ashley’s first attempt goes bad and she finds herself stuck with a small girl named Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez) who has been separated from her mother, you can just feel the energy leak out of the movie as it embarks on an all-too-predictable course. Riker does his best to keep sentimentality at bay — indeed, this movie could have been truly unbearable — but he still can’t generate the emotion that he’s going for.
It’s Cornish who holds this movie together, seething with discontent and an unearned sense of being wronged in the early going. When Ashley takes a break from trying to reunite Rosa with her family by getting drunk at a cantina, Cornish not only looks completely at home but also allows the whole movie to take a much-needed breath. More than half her dialogue is in Spanish, too, so she gets extra points for being a convincing Texan in a whole ’nother language. Gripe if you will about movies that show us poor foreign countries through the eyes of white characters, but a performance this good is worth seeing regardless.
Starring Abbie Cornish and Maritza Santiago Hernandez. Written and directed by David Riker. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday in Dallas.