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Film Review: ‘From Nowhere’

A compelling indie drama about the day-to-day lives and anxieties of three undocumented high-school students.

Julianne Nicholson, Denis O'Hare, J. Mallory McCree, Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Raquel Castro, Tashiana Washington, Sydni Beaudoin, Jim Norton, Portia Johnson.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5447816/

Arriving in the middle of an election season when debates over U.S. immigration policy have devolved into sloganeering and shouting matches, “From Nowhere” feels all the more urgent and relevant as it applies human faces to abstract statistics and arguments. Writer-director Matthew Newton (“Three Blind Mice”) neatly avoids predictability and melodramatic excess in focusing on three undocumented teenagers nearing graduation at a Bronx high school, effectively using the specifics of their individual situations to illustrate opportunities and obstacles in the path of anyone pursuing the American Dream while hiding in plain sight. Credible and creditable performances by a fine cast of promising newcomers and familiar veterans enhance the emotional impact of this low-key but compelling indie, which could find a receptive audience beyond the traditional arthouse crowd with the aid of savvy marketing and critical support.

Loosely based on a play by co-scripter Kate Ballen, the multistranded scenario is set into motion when a dedicated teacher (Julianne Nicholson) goes beyond the call of duty to aid and encourage three of her most promising students: Moussa (J. Mallory McCree), a well-read emigre from the Republic of Guinea; Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), a sullen Dominican girl who’s alternately exploited and neglected by the uncaring relatives she’s living with; and Alyssa (Raquel Castro), a Peruvian-born budding valedictorian who, like her two classmates, has been residing illegally in the United States for years.

Hoping to help her students obtain the papers they desperately need, the teacher directs them to a lawyer (Denis O’Hare) who’s amply experienced, and brutally frank, when it comes to providing pro bono advice in immigration court cases. Right from the start, he warns them: Great grades and clean arrest records aren’t nearly enough. The best way to impress a judge is to provide detailed testimony about political persecution. “Genocide is good,” he says in the blase tone of an overworked waiter rattling off a list of lunchtime entrees. “Genital mutilation is better. Dictators are the best.”

For better or worse, none of these items figure into the personal histories of these students. Moussa questions his mother (Chinasa Ogbuagu) about the bad old days back in Guinea — and is frustrated by her tight-lipped refusal to cooperate. Meanwhile, Sophie finds it increasingly difficult to stifle her pent-up rage about her home situation and comes perilously close to a public meltdown that might draw attention from authorities. Alyssa — whose plot thread is the least fully developed, despite Castro’s fine performance — proceeds apace with typical optimism, despite her apparent inability to uncover traumas or tragedies in her past. She is not nearly as fortunate as she thinks.

With a few notable exceptions — most notably, Sophie’s churlish uncle — clear-cut villains are mostly absent from the movie’s storyline. Indeed, Newton and Ballen are more interested in displaying unexpected flashes of decency during encounters that threaten to turn unpleasant, or worse, and upending expectations about characters who initially appear too self-absorbed to be sympathetic. In the movie’s most startlingly powerful scene, O’Hare’s seen-it-all attorney and Chavez-Richmond’s self-defensively distrustful Sophie finally bridge the gap between them by revealing their true colors — and, in the process,  the actors playing those characters bring out the very best in each other.

Of course, some viewers might be prone to censure “From Nowhere” for casting conspicuously Caucasian actors (Nicholson and O’Hare, who are excellent) as the “saviors” of imperiled non-Caucasian students. But as good as those actors are, the movie really belongs to the young leads — especially McCree, who impressively evinces charismatic screen presence and implosive intensity, and Chavez-Richmond, who hits the perfect balance of swaggering sass, self-destructive rage and armor-plated vulnerability. Standouts in the supporting cast include Ogbuagu, who’s positively heart-wrenching when Moussa’s mom shares a painful secret with her son’s teacher, and Sydni Beaudoin as Moussa’s sensual girlfriend, who knows nothing about her sweetie’s immigration status.

Even before the point is hammered home in an atypically unsubtle snatch of dialogue, “From Nowhere” seems a particularly apt title for an affecting drama about characters trying to maintain a low profile while trapped in limbo. The three immigrants at the heart of the story don’t remember much, or even care, about their countries of origin. But they cannot yet feel safely at home in a place where — if they trust the wrong person, or blunder into the wrong situation — they will be rejected. And then ejected.

Production values are just polished enough to enhance the movie’s overall sense of immediacy.

Film Review: 'From Nowhere'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight), March 12, 2016. Running time: 89 MIN.

Production: A No Place for Films production. Produced by Kate Ballen, Matthew Newton. Co-producer, Katie Grim.

Crew: Directed by Matthew Newton. Screenplay, Newton, Kate Ballen, based on a play by Ballen. Camera (color), Jay Keitel; editor, Betsy Kagen; production designer, Madison Burgess; costume designer, Begona Berges; sound, Robert Albrecht; assistant director, Annie Kaempfer; casting, Judy Henderson.

With: Julianne Nicholson, Denis O'Hare, J. Mallory McCree, Octavia Chavez-Richmond, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Raquel Castro, Tashiana Washington, Sydni Beaudoin, Jim Norton, Portia Johnson.

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