In December of last year, The New York Times published a long investigation piece titled She Stalked Her Daughter’s Killers Across Mexico, One By One. The story is one that, if told through fictional lenses, would be deemed too much of a reach. Miriam Rodríguez, a petite 50-year-old, cut and dyed her hair, purchased precise outfits and spent days on end noting the smallest details of certain routines in order to infiltrate any spaces that could grant her information regarding the murder of her daughter, Karen. 

It is tempting to glorify Rodríguez’s quest, to place this desperate, grieving woman in an altar built on eye-catching headlines that ultimately obfuscates the devastating circumstances that forced her into this twisted manhunt. Her merits are many and undeniable, but Rodríguez’s story is one of loss and the indescribable pain much too common in areas heavily affected by Mexico’s violent cartel presence.

Fernanda Valadez’s feature debut, Identifying Features, is equally centered around a desperate Mexican mother seeking answers. Magdalena (Mercedez Hernández) begins searching for her son, Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), after weeks of silence following the teenager’s decision to leave his hometown of Guanajuato to cross the border into the United States. Like thousands of others each year, Jesús headed north hoping to find the opportunities his own country couldn’t offer, including the chance to financially provide for his mother. 

The teen was due to cross the border in the company of childhood friend Rigo (Armando García), a young boy with a distinctive milky birthmark covering a large portion of his face. It is precisely this birthmark that Rigo’s mother spots amongst dozens of photos of bodies found near the border. The unusual marking allows for the boy to be identified, for his body to be brought home, providing the family with a sense of closure. Magdalena, on the other hand, is not granted the same courtesy, Jesús only one more amongst many, a man with no identifying features, a question with no answers. 

“Why did he leave? He had a life here… He had a job with me, what did he gain by leaving?” asks Pedro (Xicoténcatl Ulloa), Rigo’s father, when driving Magdalena closer to the border so she can proceed with her quest. The woman simply states “He wanted to find his own way”, her remark equally filled with both understanding and lament. In just a few words, Magdalena conveys a sentiment that is often hard to resume, a deep desire, at times born out of a sense of responsibility, at others out of long held dreams, to break a generational cycle, to get a life as far from the one lived by who raised you – to make big. 

As Magdalena moves up north, Miguel (David Illescas) is heading down south following his deportation. The man moves back into the humble house he once shared with his mother, a house he found empty upon arrival, no clues to where his mother could have been. When Magdalena finally reaches the border limits, she finds herself in the company of Miguel and, in each other, they find a fitting partner in sorrow – one looking for a son, the other, for a mother. 

Miguel is battling with guilt, the result of the years he spent in the United States without being able to take care of his mother. “If I hadn’t been deported, I wouldn’t have left”, he quietly confesses, standing in the house his mother never improved, every penny saved going straight into sending her son down under. The arid land that divides the two countries serves as the man’s own limbo as he finds himself unable to look back, but with nothing to look forward to. 

The search, here, although clearly marked by urgency, is portrayed through quietness. Magdalena never raises her voice, never wastes a question. The small woman marches on despite knowing the closest she gets to answers, the riskiest her journey becomes. As it enters its third act, Identifying Features moves from a contemplative study of grief to a bone-chilling analysis of the harrowing impacts of Mexico’s drug war. As the credits roll, one is left broken by the agonising certainty that the story told here is currently being endlessly replicated, mass graves filled to the top with people that may never be claimed.

Rating: ★★★