By Athena Film Festival blogger Carrie Nelson
Though Winter Storm Nemo prevented some scheduled screenings and Q&A’s from going on as planned, the Athena Film Festival provided a much-needed distraction for those looking to escape the snow. Saturday’s lineup included The Girl, a film that tells the story of Ashley (Abbie Cornish), a young woman battling alcoholism and struggling to regain custody of her son. In an attempt to earn extra money, she offers to bring a group of immigrants from Mexico to Texas. When her plan goes drastically awry, she must take care of Rosa (Maritza Santiago Hernandez), a young girl who longs to be reunited with her grandmother in Oaxaca. In the days that follow, Ashley and Rosa teach each other about responsibility, trust, and what it means to be a caretaker.
Writer and director David Riker was present for a post-screening Q&A, which he called the most “profound” Q&A in which he had ever participated. Indeed, the discussion skipped over surface-level questions in favor of a deep discussion about language, immigration, and the portrayal of the film’s protagonists.
Throughout the filmmaking process, Riker asked himself, “How do we make films that deal with other cultures and approach the issue of language?” The answer, in part, was to make the film bilingual; Riker conveyed Cornish’s commitment to the role of Ashley by sharing that she learned to speak Spanish specifically for the film. The heavy use of Spanish, as well as the film’s nuanced perspective on immigration, has led to The Girl being “wildly embraced” in Mexico.
The audience was particularly interested in analyzing the portrayal of Ashley and the ways in which she changes over the course of the film’s narrative. Ashley does not start out as an especially likeable protagonist and, as Festival co-founder Melissa Silverstein pointed out, “It’s harder for women to be unlikeable [than men].” Riker admitted that he doesn’t believe Ashley necessarily changes, but she possesses a level of responsibility and personal agency at the end of the film that she lacks at the start. “I wanted Ashley to grow,” he explained. “I don’t think I could make films if I didn’t believe that it’s possible to change.”
Finally, the discussion turned to the film’s title: to whom does The Girl refer? Riker asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed the titular girl was Rosa, Ashley, or both. The room was divided – there is no clear answer. This, it seems, was Riker’s intention. From the beginning, “it seemed like the only title,” he said.
The Girl will open in limited theatrical release on March 8, International Women’s Day. Keep an eye out for it in a theater near you
Carrie Nelson is a writer and filmmaker, committed to using media to advocate for social justice. Follow her work at www.carolyn-nelson.com.