Abbie Cornish has made a habit of taking on tough roles in difficult movies. In the 19th century romance "Bright Star" she played the secret love of English poet John Keats; in "W.E." she tackled an unhappily married woman obsessed with Wallis Simpson. (And that doesn’t include indies such as “Candy,” in which she played a heroin addict opposite Heath Ledger.) None of those films found a terribly wide audience.
Cornish continues the dark-and-difficult pattern with "The Girl," a bilingual immigrant drama that had its world premiere this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival. David Riker's moody indie has the Australian actress playing Ashley, an impoverished Texas woman whose child is taken away from her due to her drinking and generally bad parenting. Desperate for cash, Ashley tries to smuggle a group of Mexicans across the border into the United States, an operation that goes horribly wrong and winds up with Ashley responsible for a cute but petulant young Mexican girl (Maritza Santiago Hernandez).
Cornish's character then spends much of the downbeat movie on-screen by herself, or with the girl in gritty Mexican neighborhoods trying to figure a way out of her mess, as the walls close in and the dialogue gets even less frequent.
At least this one is set in the present day.
Cornish acknowledged the challenges in making the movie, saying at a post-screening question-and-answer session that the Spanish, among other things, proved tricky.
She said she was helped by Santiago Hernandez, a non-pro whom Riker discovered at an open-casting session. "She knew every single word in the entire script. It was intimidating," Cornish said, adding, to some laughs from the audience: "It's so nice to work with another actor who's so prepared."
In a departure from the tweeness of her other recent lead parts, Cornish plays a hardscrabble, hard-luck woman of the American underclass, switching between Spanish and a twangy Texas drawl. You can see why she'd take the role, which, at least on the page, has prestige and Oscar bait written all over it.
Whether it was the right choice for her, or she the right choice for it, can be debated. Less ambiguous are the movie's commercial challenges. Immigration and border dramas are a tough sell in any event, and they're probably even tougher now that we've seen a bunch of them, including "Frozen River" in 2008 (with which "The Girl" has some similarities) and "La Misma Luna" and "Sugar" before that. "The Girl," which does not have U.S. distribution, was being developed for about a decade, and it's hard not to feel like it might have enjoyed a different fate had it been completed ahead of those films.
Riker ("La Ciudad") said at the Q+A that he wanted to reverse the traditional immigrant story in which the outsider ends up in the United States. “Would there be a way of turning the border upside down?” Riker said he asked himself, a way “to take an American … and bring her south?”
So, yes, at least give some credit to the director for putting a new spin on a perpetually challenging issue. And perhaps to Cornish for attempting a new spin on a challenge-ridden resume.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Maritza Santiago Hernandez and Abbie Cornish in "The Girl." Credit: Tribeca Film Festival