There is unbearable heartbreak in this migrant drama from first-time Mexican film-maker Fernanda Valadez – and also a vision of real evil. At times, it looks something like social-realist folk horror. Mercedes Hernández plays Magdalena, a middle-aged woman from Guanajuato in central Mexico whose teenage son Jesús left home three years before, with a friend, on a bus bound for the border, where he’d hoped to take his chances on disappearing into the US as an illegal. But the body of Jesús’s friend has been found on Mexican territory, in an unspeakably grim holding area where the corpses of teen runaways are routinely kept in container boxes awaiting identification – though there is still no proof that Jesús himself is dead.
Magdalena sets out on a quest to find her son in the terrifyingly dangerous borderlands where bandits waylay buses for vulnerable passengers who can be robbed, raped, or trafficked. On the way, Magdalena comes across a teenage boy called Miguel (David Illescas) who is making the opposite journey; just deported from the US, he is now miserably trying to find his mother. Of course, the two travel together, and for a while the film appears to be inviting us to predict a bittersweet, figurative ending: that is, Magdalena will “find” Miguel as someone who is very like her son; he will “find” her too in the same way and there will be a crumb of comfort in each other’s company.
Identifying Features is indeed about that, but the ending is much darker, more dramatic and sensational with an undertow of spiritual horror: quite unselfconsciously and unapologetically, Valadez invokes the image of Satan. This film (the original title is actually Sin señas particulares, or No Identifying Features) is a cry of rage or a cry for help, on behalf of people in Mexico who have been abandoned to lawlessness, corruption and the vast market forces created by its northern neighbour.
• Identifying Features is released on 1 May on BFI Player.