It begins with a lone flamenco dancer performing alone on a wooden board laid across the sand in the middle of a Mexican desert. Her staccato taps seem to spell out in Morse code the thoughts we hear about men and the trouble they bring. And then one arrives, bringing trouble. He asks, “Where is she?” The dancer ignores him, tapping ever faster. And then he shoots her.
As she dies, she tells her daughter to go to Los Angeles and find her friend, Masilda (Rossy de Palma). “If you are my heart,” she says, “she is my spine.” That daughter is Carmen (Melissa Barrera of the underseen “In the Heights”). She smears her mother’s blood on her forehead and sets off for the United States.
Then there’s a bit of an (intentional) jolt with a switch to a more contemporary scene, with Aiden (Paul Mescal) barbecuing at a small party, gently turning down a beer from a woman who seems interested in pursuing a relationship, gently teasing his sister about the way she looks out for him. He is a veteran at something of a loss. At night, he plays his guitar alone in the desert.
He and some of his friends are volunteer (unofficial, uninvited, and trigger-happy) border guards. Carmen is captured, and her friends are shot. Then Aiden kills the man who is about to shoot her. Soon they are on the run together.
Barrera is a wonderfully graceful and expressive dancer. She and Mescal have sizzling chemistry that works on an emotional level, not just a physical one. Their characters connect without words, recognizing loss in each other and how they respond to what they have lost. Mescal continues to be one of the most arresting actors in film today. No one is better at using posture and movement to define a character. Aiden may have been at a loss when we first see him. He drinks Pepsi while others around him drink alcohol, which suggests that he is separating himself from some past behavior. But his sense of honor is intact. Mescal beautifully shows us how he feels when he finds that he may still be open to love and connecting with someone.