‘Identifying Features’: The Harrowing Realities of the Borderlands

Fernanda Valadez shocks with her quiet and petrifying feature directorial debut look at the dangers of crossing the U.S. Mexico Border.

CREDIT: Kino Lorber

I won’t lie, it has been difficult to put pen to paper when it comes to what I thought about this film. Fernanda Valadez’s Identifying Features is incredible and that is a complete understatement. What she is able to accomplish is so moving and harrowing at the same time. I kind of hate myself for waiting so long to finally watch this. This is not just a film about unconditional love but the absolute terrifying reality of crossing the border. This is a story that is known all too well, I mean there are a lot of movies that have done this story before like Babel, Desierto, Under The Same Moon, and others that have discussed the pain and dangers of trying to gain a better life by crossing to a neighboring country. Valadez constructs this masterpiece by engrossing the viewer in a journey that absolutely never lets go of you or maybe you just can’t help but keep looking.

Identifying Features is a pretty simple movie on paper, a mother goes looking for her child after he goes missing when he and his friend embark on a journey to cross the Arizona/Mexico border. The cast includes actual mothers who are still looking for their missing children today like our main actress Mercedes Hernandez. This is already something that impressed me because I am a fan of non professional actors’ performances. There is something about someone who is not experienced in the art of acting that can come on and express themselves artistically without ever having acted on stage or in front of the camera. In regards to this film though you have people who know from experience these hardships. They are able to bring another level of experience and knowledge that any other actor could bring to it. The film is expertly shot by Claudia Berrecil Bulos who captures natural lighting in some beautiful external shots. My jaw was on the floor throughout the third act with all of its rich visuals accompanied by an exquisite color palette. The music adds to the hypnotic and mesmerizing nature of the film that creates this very uneasy atmosphere. Throughout it all, the strongest part of this film is the script and beautiful direction from Fernanda Valadez.

It is really hard to approach these stories for me living on the border and being a son of immigrants. Part of me wants to scream to the industry that we don’t need more and more of trauma stories being the only stories about Latinos on the screen, but also we fail to understand that these are our stories whether we like them or not. These are the stories of our ancestors and we have to make sure to not let these stories die off. We have to point the mirror to society and show them exactly what is happening because then they will never understand the immigrant experience. Every single time Mercedes Hernandez is on screen I am heartbroken. I want to reach over the screen and hug her because this is a reality that is too well known in Latin America but especially on the border. Valadez is hoping that if we cannot understand the immigrant experience we can at least begin to empathize with the immigrant experience. Sadly, I know there are still people who will watch this and say, “well they should have stayed in their country.” I think this film perfectly tells you that we wish it was that easy. I just hope anyone who is still going through this can watch this and find a sense of community of grief knowing that they are not alone in their experience.

Fernanda Valadez has a great career ahead of her. Her directorial knowledge shines bright throughout the whole film. The way she chooses shots, lingers on looks, and is able to get these performances out of first time actresses is groundbreaking for her upcoming career. She has a very patient approach to her thematic characteristics being discussed. She is an impeccable artist who will make more wonders like this in her lifetime. I know I am really excited to see what else she will make.

You can buy or rent Identifying Features on most purchasing sites like Amazon Prime Video.

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