Identifying Features, a MostlyIndies Review

Image by Kino Lorber

A mother’s void after losing her son leads her into the unexpected in Fernanda Valadez’s solid drama.

It has been a long-running story tied to Latino culture. Since there was such a topic as emigrating from one’s mother country — be it Mexico, Dominican Republic, or Cuba — in search of a better future, there has been an untold number of illegal entries either by land or by sea. With those entries, many successful, there are always, without fail, the ones that end tragically.

I was lucky to see Fernanda Valadez’s drama of the sordid lives of the forgotten last November at the AFI LatinX Film Festival. Valadez’s story seemed too poignant, too much of an open wound to ignore. I had written some notes about its haunted story and left it at that because I felt it needed another view. When it came out again at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I jumped at it almost immediately. That already announces how good this movie is, even when it is slightly obscure and with hints of magical realism,

Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares) tells the story of Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez), a woman of no stature and scant education, whose son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) goes missing and is presumed dead after an attempt to cross the border and seek a future in the US. Getting next to no help from authorities, relying on hearsay and the kindness of strangers, Magdalena, needing closure, sets out into the unknown in search of whatever happened to her son.

Her search dovetails with that of another young man named Miguel (David Illescas) who was in the vicinity of where Jesús was last seen and is on his way home. As they interact with one another, a vague, tenuous mother-son bond starts to form, and Magdalena begins to wonder if her search may have been not for the son she lost, but a son she could still have.

Valadez’s movie is a shadowy experience. Because it seeks to disclose a system of anarchy that seems to be working in tandem with local officers, a sense of lethal corruption permeates her narrative. No one speaks in a direct way for fear of some unknown, exacting punishment. People who decide to help Magdalena often talk to her off-screen, sometimes in near-whispers. One snippet of information leads Magdalena to the next snippet until she comes face to face with a terrible reality.

Viewers seeking narratives that focus on the lives of migrants will come to appreciate Valadez’s textured mystery-drama and even appreciate its slight deviations into magical realism. I think this is a strong debut feature film and almost wish that Mexico would have submitted this one instead of I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aquí) because of its theme of those who’ve slipped into the cracks of a system that exploits the poor for a few corrupt dollars.

Grade: A

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