We Are One – A Global Film Festival

Winner of the Best Feature award at last year’s Lleida Latin American Film Festival, Beyond the Mountain is a slow-burn Mexican dramatic thriller about a boy who goes looking for his estranged father following his mother’s sudden death. Miguel (Benny Emmanuel) never met his father, but his 18-year absence hangs over him like a dark cloud. His relationship with his mother, Julieta (Marcela Ruiz Esparza), is tense because he cannot understand why she is still clinging onto memories of the man who walked out on them on the day Miguel was born. The reality of his mother’s struggles hits home when he returns from work one day to find her dead from a pill overdose, clutching photos and a sealed letter addressed to Miguel’s father, Arturo. Ditching the relentless monotony of his mundane life, Miguel takes the letter and embarks on a journey to find and confront his long-lost father.

The film relies considerably on the talents of actor/YouTuber Benny Emmanuel, who is quietly compelling as Miguel. He sits on the threshold between youth and adulthood, capable of holding down a 9 to 5 job at a clerk’s office but too awkward and shy to ask his client, Carmela (Renée Sabina), out for coffee. His mother’s death forces him into a level of maturity that he’s not ready for, almost like an unexpected second coming-of-age. As he goes deeper into the search for his father, he becomes toughened – for better or for worse – by his experiences. In one scene, he ventures into an unsafe neighbourhood and is threatened by someone who had a less-than-stellar history with Arturo and certainly doesn’t wish to be asked about him. He then lies his way through the city and winds up getting a job at the furniture store where his father supposedly works but never shows up at, according to colleague José (Enrique Arreola). Miguel changes gradually over the course of the film – from a naïve, innocent boy to a rage-filled man tormented by his own demons – Emmanuel portrays this earnestly with great subtlety and ease.

Beyond the Mountain is Mexican director David R. Romay’s first narrative feature film; he has worked almost exclusively on documentary TV series up until now. His experience in directing documentaries is evident in the film’s cinematography, as he often opts to use a shaky, handheld camera to follow Miguel around the streets of Ciudad Juárez. Although the film has been dubbed a thriller, it’s not the high-intensity, fast-paced kind. Romay sticks to the slow pace that he lays out at the beginning, building tension gradually throughout and leaving you wondering just where the hell the story is going. At times it seems like it’s meandering, but it’s intriguing, nonetheless.

Considering the story is given a lot of room to breathe throughout the film, the final act is relatively crammed. Instead of answering some of the film’s most pressing questions, Romay suddenly reveals a whole host of details about Miguel and Arturo’s lives without really explaining them, leaving us with more questions than answers. Sadly, poor Miguel is also left confused and frustrated as the film culminates in sudden tragedy – an ending that would have proven more impactful had it been more enlightening and less rushed.

Nevertheless, Beyond the Mountain is an assured narrative feature debut. It greatly benefits from the director’s background in documentary filmmaking which, when coupled with Benny Emmanuel’s grounded performance, grants it a captivating sense of realism.

Rating: ★★★½

Directed by: David R. Romay

Written by: David R. Romay

Cast: Benny Emmanuel, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Renée Sabina