Review: A Mexican mother’s haunted search drives bone-deep chills of ‘Identifying Features’

David Illescas approaches the U.S.-Mexico border in the movie "Identifying Features."
(Kino Lorber)

Hypnotic and heartbreaking, “Identifying Features” is a feature debut to marvel at, but only once you’re able to shake off the bone-deep chills emanating from Mexican filmmaker Fernanda Valadez’s disorienting tale of a mother’s search for her missing son. Equal parts odyssey, investigation and descent, this eerily shattering dispatch from the heart of a grief-beset country — a double winner at Sundance last year that’s been racking up festival awards ever since — has the power to expand our notions of what a border story is.

It’s also the kind of first feature whose visual strengths and storytelling heft should put us all on watch for whatever Valadez, who wrote the screenplay with producer Astrid Rondero, wants to show us going forward. Because what she does here in exploring every mother’s — every migrant’s — worst nightmare feels like something simultaneously new and classically mythic, and the effect is dizzying.

“Why did he have to leave?” a stricken Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) wonders aloud about her teenage son, Jesús, who left their Guanajuato home two months earlier on a bus headed north, and who hasn’t been heard from since. Her abiding last memory — which is the dreamlike scene Valadez opens her movie with — is of young Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) coming into focus from what looks like a field of morning haze, the crackle of fire and the sound of masa being slapped and shaped nearby, the words on his lips about leaving immediately with a friend for Arizona. “What did he have to gain?” Magdalena wants to know, assuming the worst.


Rebuffed by local law enforcement who have no crime to point to — just gruesome photos of those who didn’t survive the gantlet of cartel violence — Magdalena treks to the border to see if an answer is there. A scene of lingering families and body bags awaits, and more authorities, this time with found items and clothes to show worried relatives. She briefly commiserates with a fellow mother (Ana Laura Rodriguez), herself in an emotional limbo regarding a possibly disappeared son, and who offers sage advice to Magdalena about the pressure from officials to sign proof-of-death papers. Who is that closure really for? The families, or those who want to stop looking?

As Magdalena’s quest continues — including crossing paths with a deportee named Miguel (David Illescas) on a sort of reverse journey, to find a remote home he hasn’t been to in years — the movie starts to take on the aura of something sadder and darker, something we also see play over Hernández’s face in her gripping portrait of fortitude and pain. And that human impulse to keep searching — when the landscape becomes increasingly unrecognizable and the moment of discovery might be anywhere between heaven and hell — is what helps fuel Valadez’s finely wrought melding of maternal drama and atmospheric thriller.

Mercedes Hernández peers out a window in the movie "Identifying Features."
Mercedes Hernández in the movie “Identifying Features.”
(Kino Lorber)

This approach is made especially resonant in cinematographer Claudia Becerril’s artful depth-of-field work, marked by a claustrophobic indistinctness around Magdalena as she navigates strangers’ deflections and cryptic clues. Outside scenes that might seem naturalistically harmless, meanwhile — hills, roads, unpeopled terrain, busy skies, the play of sunlight, what cuts through the night — have an ability to turn imperceptibly (and sometimes noticeably) ominous. There’s a thickness to the quiet in “Identifying Features” that starts to feel like a vise, and it’s aided by the unforced but churning pace of the editing (credited to Valadez, Rondero and Susan Korda), and Clarice Jensen’s woozy, sparsely utilized score.

Perhaps most striking about how Valadez brings all these artistic elements together — including some phantasmagoric touches — is that it’s stealthily commanding, as if you weren’t only watching a wonderful new talent, but a new genre being forged. It poignantly honors the weight of the unease and sorrow felt by countless Mexican families, and yet its heart-stopping conclusion reveals the punch of a confident storyteller, someone familiar with how everyone’s fate involves boundaries visible and invisible. With its heavy heart and percolating cinematic intelligence, “Identifying Features” makes good on that crackling sound heard in the opening scene. This movie burns.

'Identifying Features'

In Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Available Jan. 22, Laemmle Virtual Cinema, Kino Marquee and other virtual cinemas