Ilegales is a stunning indie film about immigration, and the ways in which we need each other. It follows five main characters from Ciudad Juárez who are each to varying degrees associated with the cross-border exchange of goods and labor.

With a talented ensemble cast, Ilegales — like Traffic — takes a view of the trade in drugs and people that is both panoramic and minutely specific. Expansive because it encompasses such a wide variety of experience — the film takes a look both at legal and illegal migrants, families divided by a border, drug dealers, drug lords, and the investigators who chase them — but precise because this is not an anemic "issue" film. Ilegales, which is directed by an American, Ric Dupont, isn't about Mexican immigration into the United States as a political cause so much as it is about the lived experiences of these characters and the legal and social institutions they are forced to confront.

There's Ariel, a farm worker whose underutilized talents have been recognized by Arturo, an unusually honest coyote who guides (only?) people across the border; Maribel, a waitress taking night classes at a local college who has been attempting to make it through the bureaucratic crucible of legal immigration for seven years; Ignacio, an illegal immigrant single father whose continued ability to wash dishes at a New Mexico diner for well less than minimum wage has been established by his two U.S.-born daughters; and Chuy, a hard-headed coyote who gives his charges backpacks stuffed with drugs and think it's "better" when the border patrol nabs one or two stragglers. There are ranchers who call ICE on payday and FBI agents sniffing around a cartel. The so-called Minutemen even make a cameo. The scenes that take place around the border itself (mostly shot in the beautiful sage-brush desert of New Mexico) offer glimpses of a dynamic eco-system of transit, with groups crossing backwards and forwards at great personal risk and with much mutual suspicion. (With good reason: Ariel and Arturo come across the body of a 15-year-old girl during one of their trips. And given the murders Juárez is so notorious for, Maribel is facing enormous personal risk just by dint of working a job with such late hours.)

In this scene, Ariel and his wife, Juana, are arguing. Ariel was finishing his last day at a gig hoeing fields when Arturo, the workers' liaison with the rancher, asked him to drive an empty pickup back to Juárez; Ariel agreed and made $200, but there's the sense that this has marked his initiation into other things.

The connections the characters have with one another at first seem abstract — kind of like the tenuous connection most white Americans feel with the immigrant labor that grows most of the food that reaches our tables and often as not buses the plates we eat it off. But a variety of Altman-esque links are revealed as the story progresses, and each revelation of interdependency raises the stakes. The drug cartel seems to be headed by Ricardo, who owns the bar where Maribel ekes out a living serving drunk Americans beer and tacos. Chuy and Ignacio are in business together. Arturo is Maribel's brother. Everyone is looking for a better life, but the means of achieving such a thing remains, for most of these characters, sadly and persistently remote.

Ilegales doesn't have a U.S. distributor yet; but a more timely — and sincerely told — film could hardly be imagined.

Ilegales [Official Site]