Why didn’t Abbie Cornish ever happen? After a promising start in her home country where she starred in the multi-awarded Somersault, the Australian actress went on to Hollywood where she was poised to become the next big thing after landing juicy roles in Kimberly Peirce’s Iraq drama Stop-Loss, Ridley Scott’s A Good Year and Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
Her biggest chance at recognition came when she played Fanny Brawne, John Keat’s muse in Bright Star directed by Jane Campion. Her soulful, melancholy turn as the vibrant Brawne earned her rave reviews that mysteriously saw her gain no real traction at year end awards and during the next few years her career just continued to fizzle, as she starred in films directed by Zack Snyder and Madonna.
What exactly has kept Cornish away from glory is an enigma. Is it her physical similarity to Charlize Theron? Can it be that Hollywood hasn’t forgiven her for her alleged involvement in the dissolution of a revered industry couple? Does she have a bad relationship with her agent? The answer might never be clear, but watching The Girl, it becomes plain disappointing. Cornish injects such humanity to her character in this movie, that one can’t help but assume that if she had been played by say Theron, she would’ve instantly been in the run for a dozen awards.
The film (written and directed by David Riker) has Cornish play Ashley, a down on her luck Texas woman who works at a supermarket while trying to sober up and regain custody of her little son, Georgie (Austin Wayne West) who lives with foster parents. From the very start, Ashley is presented to us as a confrontational person who believes the whole world is trying to destroy her. When her boss refuses to give her a promotion, she accuses him of preferring “Mexican girls”, even after he tells her that it’s all about her attitude.
Under constant pressure from social workers who pay her surprise visits—which give her no time to hide her half empty bottles and other suspicious objects—Ashley decides the only way to win her son back is to make more money, so following her father’s (a chilling Will Patton) advice she becomes a “coyote”, that is someone who carries illegal aliens across the Mexico-US border. However, her very first attempt at this unorthodox career goes terribly wrong when the people she is trying to smuggle into the States flee after they’re discovered by a patrolling helicopter. All but two of them are left behind: an old man and a little girl by the name of Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez) who begs Ashley to reunite her with her parents.
Perhaps out of guilt or just as a dramatic resource, Ashley travels with the little girl to Mexico where she is under the constant threat of getting caught for what she’s done, missing an important court appointment and developing feelings for Rosa, who might very well be an orphan. Riker doesn’t worry too much about making sense (we never know why it’s so easy for Ashley to drive back to Mexico with a child for example…) but he reassures us that his movie is not about plot or learning lessons, but about Cornish’s performance.
There must have been a point during filming when he realized how much the actress can do with so little, that he just gave up and decided to surrender his entire film to the power of her soulful search. Combining restrained rage with confusion and lack of self-knowledge, Cornish gives the kind of performance where the character reveals everything through her eyes. There is little Ashley can do not to show how hurt she is, how alone she feels and how hard she wants to make things work, especially because she still doesn’t understand who she is.
The plot may be filled with silly turns and more often than not verges on the melodramatic, but Cornish’s stern work and her lack of vanity when it comes to acting next to a child (who sadly gives an obnoxiously studied performance) prove to be the real draw to this film. Those expecting a treatise on Mexican-American border relationships will be highly disappointed and those expecting the Caucasian-meets ethnic person and magically turns their life around, might be quite surprised by the fact that thanks to its leading actress The Girl sometimes proves to be revelatory.
Extras in the DVD edition are limited to a short making-of documentary and a theatrical trailer.
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