In small-town Warsaw, Indiana, mother Ana (Erica Muñoz) and her 17-year-old daughter Izzy (Izzy Hau’ula) are faced with what would have been an unthinkable future of separation just a few years ago. Fighting against stringent immigration laws, Ana decides to take her future — and that of her daughter’s — into her own hands. The result is a tense thriller, unexpectedly punctuated by serene moments.
Premiering at the HBO New York Latino Film Festival, Long Gone By is director Andrew Morgan’s feature-length narrative debut. Bringing together his documentary experience with the precision of his shorts, the result is a slow-burning, intimate portrait of a tiny family.
Long Gone By
Director: Andrew Morgan
Release date: August 17, 2019 (New York Latino Festival)
Rating: Not yet rated
It’s always difficult to review a film that deals with social issues. The important thing to keep in mind is that this is a dramatisation and that everything we see has been carefully constructed. Sometimes, it’s easy to see through the drama and realise what the filmmakers are doing — yet despite the tendency towards self-consciousness, I found myself believing in the characters and wanting them to succeed.
Izzy, for example, just wants to be a regular high-schooler. She’s smart, and gets a place to study at Indiana University in the fall. After school, she tags along to help Ana clean the house of a wealthy woman — to whose son she finds herself inevitably drawn. She and the boy spark up a friendship. But meanwhile, underneath all the normalities of Izzy’s teenage life, Ana is trying desperately not to let circumstances get in the way of her daughter’s future.
As a single mother and an immigrant, Ana is representative of a lot of women. She works two jobs — one in a factory and the other cleaning — in order to provide for herself and Izzy. Her devotion to her daughter is clear, not just from her strong work ethic, but through little things like picking Izzy up after school every day and making her lunch.
The central relationship between mother Ana and daughter Izzy is refreshingly close. Usually connections between parents and teenage children can be marked by tension and, as frequently happens in coming-of-age dramas, a desire for the child to draw away and become independent. Here, the characters freely admit that they have a close relationship and for me this marked it out from others. In fact, the plot is about keeping the family together — it’s as if the genre tropes are subverted, throwing American values into relief and reiterating the importance of family.
The film tackles a variety of themes: exorbitant tuition fees that act as a barrier to many promising and talented teenagers; the struggles of immigrants aiming to get a US citizenship or at least job or education security. Ana runs into a catch-22 when she discovers that she can’t apply for loans because she’s not an official US citizen, and that she can’t apply for this because she’s facing deportation. As a result she goes to extreme measures, but it feels like she’s not the villain here — she’s just exhausted the rest of her options.
Bordering on criminal behaviour, Ana’s actions aren’t commendable but her motives are in the right place. The rising sense of fear and panic are palpable, and it’s clear that she’s conflicted. Is it our place to judge her? Probably not — her life is pretty complicated as it is. What’s most incredulous about this situation, the film seems to say, is that it’s not incredulous any more. While social progression was once a right, bureaucracy now stands in the way. Ana has to rely on the goodwill of strangers and authority figures — schoolteachers to bank clerks, shop assistants to employers.
One particularly cruel interaction takes place when Ana approaches her wealthy employer, Ms. Chapman, for a raise. The housewife tries to help but is clearly reluctant: it’s painful to see how oblivious she is to Ana’s situation and how her well-meaning advice betrays her lack of empathy. In contrast, some of the people who would be least expected to help are the ones that are the most sympathetic. For Ana it’s a process of continually reassessing the situation and trying to find people she can trust.
There is a lot of kinetic movement throughout the film, following Izzy and Ana in cars, walking, on bikes. I particularly enjoyed the tracking shots, which align viewers with the characters and help us to understand what their lives are like. In fact, what’s most striking about the cinematography is the portrait-hour glow and the frequency of seeing these characters on the move. It once or twice feels incongruous in contrast with the high-stakes situation, but I can see the intention and it lightens the tone a lot.
One only thing I would have changed was the brief but forced mention of their past in Nicaragua. It’s passed over swiftly, but the film might have left viewers to infer their backstory. Also, we might have benefited from more substantial dialogue, as it sometimes had a tendency to lean into cliche. Despite this, though, a lot of the film plays out like real life would. Not every moment has to be a climactic, explosive event. Sometimes it’s ok to just sit with the characters, watching them eat ice cream together or study for a test. Life still goes on despite the turbulent political situation.
On the whole, Long Gone By is both a visceral thriller and a thoughtful look at a family. Characters are morally ambiguous, making them complex and lifelike, and Morgan achieves his intention to make a resonant picture. The title, in case you were wondering, is taken from the poem This Night Only by Kenneth Rexroth. “The future is long gone by / And the past will never happen / We have only this / Our one forever”. Recited in the film, it’s just one of the ways that Morgan tries to bring out the good in an otherwise bleak situation.