“It’s all about money,” The Girl’s protagonist Abbie Cornish screams to anyone who will listen. She has a point. As a single Austin, Texas mother who’s lost her son to foster care for unspecified reasons, most likely related to alcoholism, Cornish tells her social worker that she’s done everything asked of her, including finding a steady job and maintaining a residence, however unkempt. So what if she doesn’t have a swing set? Her desperate need for a quick influx of cash drives the riveting early section of the film, when Cornish, after discovering her father’s lucrative side business trucking Mexican immigrants across the border, seizes the opportunity to become a coyote herself. The sequence where she puts her plan into action, leading her clients across a shallow but perilous river into Texas, is every bit as dread-inducing as it sounds.
But then “the girl” shows up in The Girl, and it shifts into another, much more problematic drama entirely. When the raging river separates young Maritza Santiago Hernández from her mother, Cornish brings this stray duckling under her wing, and the film turns into something like a painfully earnest version of John Cassavetes’ Gloria, with the brassy Texan frantically searching for the girl’s mom. Suddenly, the tale of a screwed-up mother looking for a shortcut around the system becomes one of the mustiest stories in the book: a cranky adult resisting, resisting, resisting, and finally relenting to the steady pleas of a small child who won’t leave her side. Hernández does just fine as the mournful yet persistent tyke, but The Girl uses her hard-knock life as a path to Cornish’s redemption.
Writer-director David Riker, who previously made the accomplished 1998 Paisan homage The City (La Ciudad), has a great eye for detail: He sketches the narrow boundaries of Cornish’s sad life in Austin expertly while bringing a village square across the border to vivid life. He also gets another fine performance out of Cornish, who occasionally makes a hash of the Southern accent, but compensates with looks that convey the depth of her predicament without her having to say a word. It’s unfortunate that Riker’s strong central character and evocative location work get undermined, at every turn, by a plot that not only springs zero surprises, but reduces the terror and loss of Cornish’s charges to mere life lessons for her. A small price to make her a better person, apparently.