Abbie Cornish Shines in “The Girl”

Maritza Santiago Hernandez and Abbie Cornish star in David Riker’s “The Girl.” Courtesy of Brainstorm Media.

Maritza Santiago Hernandez and Abbie Cornish star in David Riker’s “The Girl.” Courtesy of Brainstorm Media.

Not to be confused with the tedious Hitchcock exposé of the same name, David Riker’s “The Girl” is a sensitive and touching character portrait that provides star Abbie Cornish with one of the best roles of her career. Though the political subtext of Riker’s film plays a crucial role in the narrative, this is first and foremost an exploration of a young woman’s journey into adulthood, and Cornish navigates the transition beautifully. It’s a wonderful performance.

Throughout his filmmaking career, Riker has set out to humanize the plight of immigrants, most memorably in his acclaimed 1998 feature debut, “La Ciudad.” It was during the years he spent living in the Mexican city of Oaxaca that Riker was inspired to write a script about the sort of person who would feel compelled to smuggle immigrants into the U.S. The character morphed into Ashley, a single Texan mother who lost her son to Social Services after driving drunk with him in the car. Now strapped for cash and forced to work under the florescent lights of a generic retail chain, Ashley has developed an immense hatred for the world she has failed to master. Only after we meet her drifting father (Will Patton) do we begin to realize how her development became so arrested.

Attempting to follow in her father’s lawless footsteps, Ashley offers to smuggle a group of Mexicans over the American border. Her actions are clearly fueled by desperation, and it’s not long before the aspiring immigrants realize that ‘this girl doesn’t know what she’s doing.’ Needless to say, her scheme doesn’t go as planned, leaving Ashley stuck with a frightened yet whip-smart little girl, Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez). Only after Ashley reluctantly agrees to help Rosa reconnect with her mother does the budding heroine start to take responsibility for her actions. All of this could’ve been fodder for heavy-handed melodrama, and there are times when the dialogue is a bit on-the-nose, but Cornish grounds each scene in an uncompromising and unsentimental reality.

This was truly a passion project for Riker, who recently wrapped the Sundance prize-winning documentary, “Dirty Wars” (featuring my cousin, investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill). He’s a filmmaker driven to shed light on vital issues, and is gifted with the ability to build a sense of atmosphere. The cinematography by Martín Boege accentuates the astonishing beauty of the Mexican landscape, particularly in Oaxaca, which is so often overlooked in modern indies preoccupied with drug wars. Though Cornish has received a slew of bigger budgeted showcases, she has never looked more ravishing than she does here, exuding an earthy sensuality and raw magnetism reminiscent of Charlize Theron. Even skeptical viewers will have a difficult time taking their eyes off her. They’ll be glad they didn’t.

“The Girl” opens today, March 22nd (my birthday), at the AMC River East 21 for a one-week run. Make sure to check it out. Today also happens to be the release date for two other excellent indie showcases for young actresses: Sally Potter’s “Ginger & Rosa” (starring the extraordinary Elle Fanning) and Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” (featuring the remarkable newcomer, Rachel Mwanza). As for Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” the entire female ensemble is easily upstaged by James Franco’s show-stopping turn as a silver-toothed rapper. Though the film is far from Korine’s best—it’s essentially a hyper-stylized send-up of his earlier odes to wayward youth—I won’t hide my giddiness that this aggressively arty picture somehow managed to open everywhere today. Happy birthday, indeed.

Instead of posting the spoiler-laden trailer for “The Girl” below, I’ve instead included an excerpt from an interview with Riker and Cornish on “Democracy Now.” Enjoy…

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