The three Bronx teenagers we get to know in "From Nowhere," a somber and affecting independent drama from the writer-director Matthew Newton, are sketched along familiar lines. Moussa (J. Mallory McCree) is bright, good-looking and popular, and has a steady girlfriend. Alyssa (Raquel Castro) is the overachiever, with a straight-A report card and a hopeful future. Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond) is the sullen, difficult one, her anger and defensiveness spilling out in scene after scene.
All three of them, we learn at the outset, are in the U.S. illegally — a fact that never undercuts our sense of their sublime ordinariness. Their high school English teacher, Jackie (Julianne Nicholson), works overtime to help them apply for asylum, and puts them in touch with an immigration attorney, Isaac (Denis O'Hare). He bluntly encourages them to scour their family histories for episodes of violence, abuse, murder and kidnapping in their countries of origin — the harsher the sob story, the better.
"From Nowhere," co-written by Newton and Kate Ballen (and loosely based on a play that Ballen wrote), scrupulously avoids that kind of blatant assault on our sympathies. It asks the viewer to examine its three fictional subjects as clearly and dispassionately as possible, to spot their potential strengths and weaknesses in the eyes of the law — and also to recognize the flaws in a system that hinges on that kind of scrutiny.
Moussa would seem to have a decent shot at getting his papers: He has little memory of his upbringing in Guinea years ago, but the persecutions that his family endured might well end up satisfying a judge's demand for trauma. In the meantime, the challenges of day-to-day survival threaten to overwhelm him, his sister (Tashiana Washington) and his mother (Chinasa Ogbuagu), who is consumed with guilt at her inability to provide for her children.
Sophie, meanwhile, would seem to be her own worst enemy. Deeply mistrustful of authority, she doesn't even seem that interested in avoiding the possibility of deportation back to the Dominican Republic. We soon learn why: She's been passed from one set of relatives to the next for years, and her home life at present is one of continual abuse and neglect — a tragedy that Chavez-Richmond, a real find, registers with quietly piercing intensity.
The Peruvian-born Alyssa has an easier time of it, buoyed by her strong academic record and her dreams of studying medical technology in college. Partly because of her more positive outlook, she's the character we end up spending the least time with — a decision that will be answered, late in the film, by a schematic but scrupulously unsentimental shift in perspective.
Already brimming with urgency when it premiered nearly a year ago at the South by Southwest Film Festival (where it won an audience award), "From Nowhere" feels even more like necessary viewing in light of recent headlines and the newly reignited debate over the plight of immigrants in this country illegally — particularly those who, like Moussa, didn't even realize they didn't have the requisite paperwork until young adulthood.
Although O'Hare and Nicholson are the best-known actors in the cast, the movie refuses to turn their characters into the story's saviors, or to exaggerate their ability to do good in a challenging situation. For all Jackie's and Isaac's best intentions, the most meaningful connections here are the ones that the kids form among themselves. That they can't speak publicly about their common struggle only binds them more closely, deepening their instinctive need to look out for one another — and the audience, in sharing their secret, comes to feel similarly protective.
That silent tension, roiling just beneath the surface of the characters' interactions at school and with their friends, offsets the script's occasional moments of overstatement. Directing the action with a gently handheld camera and a sharp ear for the rhythms of everyday teenspeak, Newton draws us persuasively into the sheer normalcy of his characters' world — and forces us to imagine the feeling of having that normalcy suddenly ripped away.
In English and Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills