The drama “Identifying Features” begins with a figure approaching from across a field, his appearance obscured by a heavy fog: perhaps he’s a soldier, maybe a farmer. It becomes clear only when he’s a few feet away that the man in the mist is really just a boy. As his face emerges, with smooth cheeks and cold eyes, the beauty, elusiveness and surprise of the film around him surfaces, too.
With calm conviction, this teenager, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), announces his plans to cross the border from Mexico to Arizona. Jesús’s mother, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández), explains in a voice-over that this is one of her last memories of Jesús before he went missing on his journey to reach the United States.
The movie follows Magdalena as she attempts to follow her lost son’s trail, and her quest soon spills over into the plains near where Jesús was last seen. There, she meets Miguel (David Illescas), a young man returning to his family after being deported from the United States. As they hunt together for their missing relatives, each acts as the other’s surrogate family, a makeshift son for a makeshift mother.
Though it is a somber story, the film is enlivened and energized by striking, purposeful images. The writer-director Fernanda Valadez builds depth within her frames by staging action in the background and making liberal use of offscreen sound. Traffic glows from border highways, villains loom from the shadows. There always seems to be movement happening just outside of the characters’ field of vision, events that develop without their understanding. It’s a confident debut feature, and a sophisticated acknowledgment of the powerlessness that migrants face.
Not rated. In Spanish, Zapotec and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. In theaters and on Kino Marquee. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.