PHOENIX — A new film about immigration in Arizona opens Friday in Scottsdale, starring Ed Harris, Eva Longoria, and Michael Peña.
"Frontera" begins in Mexico with a young husband and father, played by Michael Peña, getting ready to cross the border to find work.
Meanwhile on the Arizona side of the border, a woman, played by Amy Madigan, is getting ready to go out for a horseback ride.
She is married to a retired border sheriff, played by Ed Harris.
He doesn’t approve of his wife’s choice to ride along the wash on their property, saying “we can’t keep the damn Mexicans out of it.”
“If I see any damn Mexicans,” she responds, “I’ll tell them hello from you.”
But she doesn’t make it back from that ride. There’s a rush to incorrectly blame her death on Peña’s character, the border crosser.
“I started writing 'Frontera' about six years ago, probably even seven years ago, when the immigration issue started to heat up,” said Louis Moulinet III, one of the film’s screenwriters.
Moulinet grew up on the border in Douglas, Ariz., and still has friends and family in the area. His co-writer and the film’s director, Michael Berry, grew up in Phoenix.
“The press that you hear and see about Arizona and the people that live there is sometimes misleading,” Berry said.
“We wanted to put some faces to it and to really humanize the situation and remind people these are human beings. The Mexicans are human beings who are coming across here, they have a strong desire for something else. And the Americans this is happening to, this is affecting them and they are human beings," Berry said.
Though the movie was actually shot in New Mexico and is set in a fictional Arizona county, Berry and Moulinet say it’s really meant to depict the Douglas area and Cochise County.
The screenwriters were influenced by the 2010 shooting there of border rancher Robert Krentz. His murder has yet to be solved but suspicions the shooter was from Mexico made the incident a touchstone in the national debate over illegal immigration.
Moulinet said the main plot line was loosely inspired by the Krentz story, but he and Berry were careful to not replicate it directly in the film.
“There’s just too many questions unanswered and we didn’t want to rekindle that negativity,” he said.
Eva Longoria plays a Mexican migrant victimized by smugglers. Moulinet said the actress’ interest in promoting immigration reform drew her to the project.
“It hit a button with her, that she as an actress really wanted to be part of this,” Moulinet said.
Berry said they were able to sign on Peña because he too felt a personal connection to the script. The actor most recently starred in the film "Cesar Chavez," and played a supporting role in "American Hustle."
“Michael Peña’s father came over from Mexico years and years ago,” Berry said. “His mother and father were actually deported for a year and a half. This was a personal story to him. So when you see Michael Peña in this film, as he would tell you, you are really seeing a character based on his father.”
Not many mainstream American films have taken on this subject area recently, said Arizona State University professor Lee Bebout.
Bebout studies representations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in popular U.S. culture and is curious to see "Frontera."
“I think it is the first one that I know of that specifically deals with the Arizona-Mexico border, particularly after SB 1070 and [recent immigration debates],” Bebout said.
In fact, the Arizona the film depicts actually seems more like the state a few years ago, when border crossing was at a high point.
Bebout said he will be watching to see if "Frontera" lives up to the filmmakers' goal of humanizing characters on both sides of the border — something he says few Hollywood films have done.
“A lot of the same stereotypes and tropes of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and Mexico itself are existing today in many of the same ways as they were existing in the 19th Century,” Bebout said.
Critical reviews for "Frontera" have so far have been mixed.