Film Review: From Nowhere

Matthew Newton’s thoughtful, timely film follows three illegal teens from the Bronx in their legal fight to remain in U.S. for a better future. This well-written drama provides an urgently human face to the victims of an ever-growing national debate.
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Cinema is seldom apolitical. Even the most seemingly happy-go-lucky films can be examined under the lens of the social and political events amid which they were conceived and distributed. But if there ever has been a time when films are almost urgently and vitally political, it is perhaps right now, while the country is going through turbulent times following the presidential election. Thus, the timing of Matthew Newtown’s sober and thoughtful From Nowhere (which he co-wrote with Kate Ballen, loosely based on a stage play of hers) couldn’t be more ideal.

This caringly written and sympathetically observed drama, which follows three illegal New York teens from the Bronx as they seek asylum in the United States, premiered almost a year ago at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin. But released today in the midst of the heated immigration and Muslim ban debate around the country (and the world), it surely finds new blood and an undeniable measure of renewed immediacy.

We are introduced to the world of the teenagers in an organically established classroom setting that recalls the loose but steady rhythms of Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning The Class. A discussion unfolds amongst a diverse group of students led by their kindly but no-nonsense teacher, Jackie (Julianne Nicholson). We then zero in on the aforementioned three students—perhaps the brightest of the bunch—in a later scene, looking utterly out of place in the fancy office of an immigration lawyer named Isaac (Denis O’Hare), who agrees to take on the kids’ cases after Jackie connects them with him. There is the sharp, logical Moussa (Mallory McCree), whose mother emigrated from the Republic of Guinea when he and his sister were just kids. There is Alyssa (Raquel Castro), a pleasant-natured, smiley valedictorian born in Peru. And finally there is Sophie (a fiercely committed, scene-stealing Octavia Chavez-Richmond) from the Dominican Republic, the most difficult personality of the three. We spend the greatest deal of time with the often angry and stern-faced Sophie and discover that not only is she neglected by the relatives she lives with, she is sexually abused at their hands, too.

At first, their pro-bono attorney Isaac comes across as an insensitive corporate type, who blatantly tells the kids a clean criminal record and straight A’s won’t get them too far in the fight towards obtaining papers. He asks them to gather as much information as possible, showing their family history as it relates to brutality, murder and other possible crimes at home, so they can remain in the United States even though all three have been living there for the majority of their young lives. But the beauty of Newton’s intricate film soon enough surfaces. Almost every main character embarks upon a complex journey through which they reveal their humanity. Isaac’s caring ends up being a lot more genuine, even fatherly, than initially hinted at, while Jackie’s fight to get the kids on the right track proves to lack certain crucial judgment calls despite her wholehearted sincerity. But in the end, the patiently built stories of the kids are what create a lump in the throat. Aided by a series of dialogue and performance-driven scenes that put us in the midst of each of the kids’ dilemmas (the film’s stage roots are an asset for sure), From Nowhere actively prescribes empathy to its viewers. In one memorable scene, Moussa’s fake ID gets overlooked by an understanding black cop while his white counterpart interrogates his friends after a mild disturbance one night. In another, his mother faces off against her landlord to whom she owes money. (Another refreshing detail: The landlord isn’t quite the villain we expect.) In yet another memorable scene, Sophie fights off an abusive relative, before breaking down in front of Isaac about her troubles later on. All these sequences engage and challenge the viewer emotionally and intellectually, while avoiding a shallow, preachy tone.

If From Nowhere misjudges anything, it is Alyssa’s relative lack of absence from the story. One can argue the script intentionally leaves the problem-free kid behind to create a false sense of safety with regards to her case. But in the end, it misses an opportunity by sidestepping the weight of the inevitable tragedy that awaits her. It also gets a bit too convoluted with Jackie’s storyline (especially as certain eyebrows get raised in the school when she spends a bit too much time with Moussa). Still, From Nowhere achieves what it sets out to do. It soberly portrays beautiful humans who are otherwise bound to remain nameless inside ever-growing immigration and deportation statistics.

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