There are few new ideas in filmmaking these days, so a movie is often judged not by its originality but by how well it executes a familiar story. That’s certainly the case with Frontera, a film that treads familiar terrain with varying degrees of bluntness.
Illegal immigration is the impetus for the story, which finds Miguel (Michael Peña) and a friend crossing the Mexican border into Arizona looking for work. They happen to do so on land owned by Roy (Ed Harris), a former sheriff, and his wife, Olivia (Amy Madigan).
All involved play their roles effectively, making the film a pleasurable, if predictable, experience.
When Olivia comes across the two while riding her horse, she shows them kindness. But some boys try to scare the Mexicans by shooting at them, which spooks the horse, causing Olivia to fall and be killed. The rest of the film plays out alternately as a police procedural and as a commentary on the state of immigration in this country.
First-time writer/director Michael Berry does a good job of moving the story forward by spreading out the film evenly between all the involved characters. Everyone's reactions feel honest, with little overacting or storytelling manipulation.
The problem is that nothing that happens after Olivia gets killed is surprising. Berry and co-writer Louis Moulinet assign each character an easily identifiable goodness or badness, ensuring no real twists happen along the way. Every person’s conscience — or lack thereof — dictates exactly what direction the story goes.
Still, all involved play their roles effectively, making the film a pleasurable, if predictable, experience. Harris has the grizzled cowboy look down pat, and his stoic demeanor serves his character well. Peña has a one-note role, but his open and expressive face ensures that his character never comes across as boring.
The surprise for many will be the performance of Eva Longoria as Miguel’s wife, Paulina. Eschewing make-up and speaking entirely in Spanish, she’s almost unrecognizable. Whether or not her character was needed is one thing, but Longoria makes her a presence regardless.
Frontera doesn’t make a big statement about illegal immigration, and the solving of its central crime is purely by the numbers. But first-rate acting keeps the film interesting enough to forgive the film’s faults.
Frontera is showing at the Sundance Cinemas.