One of the most talked-about issues in America is immigration. How people try to enter any country will always be a divisive topic from all ends. In film, it's usually approached from a more personal angle in order to derive sympathy from the audience. This approach can easily work, but it's susceptible to romanticising this topic if proper care isn't put into showing it from a realistic angle. Fernanda Valadez's Mexican film Identifying Features mitigates this by not solely focusing on the character who tried to make it to America but focusing more so on the effects that his departure has on his mother.
The very opening of the film starts the conflict off right away. Magdalena's (Mercedes Hernández) son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) tells his mother that he's going to America with one of his friends. What Magdalena doesn't know is that she will not be hearing back from her son after his departure. This prompts her to seek out help but since her son's disappearance isn't linked to any criminal activity, no help is given to her in that regard.
Her journey then leads her to the bus company that Jesús used to get to America. In the beginning, she finds no success here either, but then, in one of the best-framed scenes in the film, she gets some semblance of Jesús's whereabouts. It's told to her that a non-Spanish speaking passenger was on the same bus as Jesús, leading Magdalena to seek out this man.
Meanwhile, a boy named Miguel (David Illescas) has just been deported back to Mexico after his failed entry into the United States. Making his way back home he crosses paths with Magdalena who at this point in her journey is lost. They find their way to Miguel's old house where no one is waiting for him. They are both seemingly alone, but they have each other.
Identifying Features has a mature grasp of the themes it's presenting. It takes its time in building the tone, with every story beat being used to great effect. There's a natural progression to how everything plays out. And this is by far one of the best shot films of 2020. There a numerous instances of both reflection and fire with a precision that's rarely seen. The wide shots feel wide and the close-ups feel intimate. It's a visceral experience brought forth through great performances, writing, and cinematography.
Touching on both immigration and family takes a skilled filmmaker to make it work and Fernanda Valadez does just that. She brings out the emotional response to losing a loved one without making it overly sappy or indulgent. While the scale may be small on the surface, Identifying Features shows the greater weight and consequence of Magdalena's experience.