When I started “Identifying Features,” a story of a mother searching for her missing son, I expected an overtly dramatic ride. However, what surprised me most was how much ground the film covers in an understated manner. Despite its heavy themes of grief, our desire for closure and the struggle for survival, the film rarely presents itself as the dark, gritty movie it could be, allowing the actors’ naturalistic performances and subtle cinematography to set an ambient yet haunting tone.

After her young son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela) goes missing while leaving Mexico for a job in America, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) traces his thin trail to find him — dead or alive. The film simultaneously follows Miguel (David Illescas), a boy about Jesús’ age, after he fails to cross the border into the U.S. While Magdalena searches for her son, Miguel tries to make it home to his mother. Their parallel, and eventual convergent journeys, take the audience on a striking tour of chaotic cities, dangerous badlands and ambient nature in the Mexican countryside, made gorgeous by cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos.

The unobtrusive yet undeniably expressive approach of Bulos and director Fernanda Valadez’s visuals in “Identifying Features” is astounding. Most of the film takes place in medium or close-up shots, often leaving many characters as off-screen voices to focus on Hernandez’s performance and the complexity she brings to her character. Shallow focus in the shots makes the world around her a blur of grief and desperation. The static camera often centers on Hernandez in the middle of the frame to convey her sense of isolation. Thus, so much of the cinematography can be characterized as a conduit for her performance as well, yet the film’s style is not always as peaceful as it may seem when the film gets into darker territory. 

Magdalena (Mercedes Hernandez) sets out on her journey into the Mexican wilderness to find her son. (Kino Lorber)

With such a consistent visual approach, Becerril and Valadez have made the effects of any change in style that much more palpable. When characters who have been close to the camera are suddenly photographed in long shots there is immediate a sense of awe in nature; when Magdalena floats down an immense river embanked by skyscraping trees she pales in comparison to the size and majesty of the landscape. When the mostly static camera becomes active as Miguel snakes through crowds at the border, for example, the movement feels immensely purposeful and important. As Magdalena nears her ultimate goal, the film keeps managing to pull out surprises, visual and otherwise, keeping the audience on their toes all while maintaining an ambient quality.

It is through these two powerful tools, Hernandez’s performance and the cinematography, that the film explores its most interesting themes. As Magdalena travels cross country, the audience sees her struggle and questions whether she should succumb to grief or keep her hope alive. Though hardly sorrowful, Magdalena is mentally struggling — she projects her son’s image onto Miguel in desperate longing for closure. But while “Identifying Features” delivers on strong central themes, not every idea sticks. Characters, including another grieving mother, key witnesses and others, often come and go without necessarily contributing to the overall film in a thematically cohesive way. Magdalena is the focus, but not every character fits neatly into her odyssey. Early on, we see Magdalena talking with people from her hometown that don’t play heavily into the ideas prevalent later in the film, and while this far from ruins it, it does hold the story back.

It is nonetheless admirable that this is the feature debut of director Fernanda Valadez. The concept of the movie, while simple, is brought to such surprising heights by strong directorial decisions. This is hopefully a sign of much more to come in Valadez’s career, as “Identifying Features” is bound to leave audience members with ideas on which to reflect, from the performances to the crushing themes, to something as down to earth as the world’s natural beauty. It is a journey through and through, one across a country, emotions, themes and nature. It is a lot to think through in whatever way you do, but a film well worth following, wherever it may take you.