Michael Berry, an actor and stage performer in a past life, comes out of nowhere with his directorial debut Frontera. A gripping drama, his passion project follows on the heels of just two short films, award winning though they may be. Frontera is an emotionally gripping narrative about a family in Mexico struggling to make it to America, by any means necessary, and it is as taut as it is sobering.
Over the course of the film each of the characters deal with extreme hardships – the family of immigrants deal with problems crossing the border (difficulties finding a guide, coming up with the money, putting trust in someone they hardly know to take them safely and ultimately getting swallowed up by a human-trafficking ring), the retired sheriff deals with the death of his wife and teenagers deal with the guilt and retribution of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ed Harris plays the retired sheriff looking for his wife’s killer; he sets to find out why and more importantly who yet he has so few facts to go on. He is one of three key components in this story that converge in the wake of his wife’s death. Berry gives vitality to bare-bones archetypes and creates a fascinating mathematical computation in the process that finds each of the characters are sides of a triangle surrounding the apparent murder. They all know about this one event and the twist is that it’s the misinformation that makes the way they go about dealing with it so interesting. They attempt to respond to the tragedy only they are working off half-facts. By doing so they makes assumptions about one another therefore putting everyone’s lives in danger as they hurry to resolve/rectify the matter quickly.
But again, that’s not even the whole story. The few players set in motion are interesting and, better, have legitimately empathetic qualities. The film does tell a very dark tale about people searching for a better life (crossing the border and seeking freedom and opportunity for your family really is a life and death struggle) and how death affects people’s psyche. But there’s also a message of hope and how dealing with grief really comes down to the acceptance – letting go so that there can be growth and change. Weaving these events together is Berry’s dialogue which is as sharp as the acting and likes of Ed Harris, Michael Pena and even Eva Longoria (who takes the most bold and unflinching role of her career) make this unassuming story so enticing and captivating.
It’s a trail of tears for everyone but, moreover, Berry doesn’t set to make something entirely deflating, just something that reads louder and truer than the headlines. There aren’t many players in the film but their lives are all turned around in a matter of seconds and because of tragedy they are bonded together. Again, the main through-line of the story is one of coping, forgiveness and moving on. While it’s easier said than done the film handles the events in a realistic way that while at times can be depressing it also offers a lot of hope. It also doesn’t hurt to have a great soundtrack created and produced by similarly talented but equally unheard of musicians (composers Kenneth Lampl and Darren Tate).
If there’s one film to seek out, simply for its ability to take the rug out from under you and impress you at the same time, it is Frontera. One thing’s for sure, Berry handles the characters and plot with a Christopher Nolan level of confidence and a Bryan Singer level of execution. That may be giving it a little more praise than it deserves but this is still a solid and surprising effort from Berry and crew.