At The Gates is an entertaining and timely thriller that blends the hot button topic of illegal immigration and undocumented workers into a universal story of fear, paranoia, and the perilous state of our own humanity. That it succeeds to the degree it does is the fact that first time feature writer/director Augustus Meleo Bernstein keeps us guessing as to the intentions and the ultimate fate of its tight circle of main characters. Essentially this is a chamber piece all set in one attractive Los Angeles area suburb’s home and the class drama taking place inside that seems ripped from headlines of individual tragic stories of illegal immigrants who have to worry at any given moment when ICE is going to show up at their doorstep, or in the case of At The Gates, at the doorstep of their employers.
Ana (Vanessa Benavente) is a Salvadoran undocumented immigrant who one day brings her college-bound son Nico (Ezekiel Pacheco) to help out on her domestic job at the L.A. home of lawyer Peter Barris (Noah Wyle), his wife Marianne (Miranda Otto) and their two kids, teenage daughter Lauren (Sadie Stanley) and young son Oliver (Jack Eyman). She has worked there about eight months and seems content. Trouble rears its head very soon though when Peter and Miranda inform them that the officials, who have suddenly turned up in front of their home, are from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and are on the trail of undocumented workers. They suggest to be safe they will hide Ana and Nico in a closeted storage area in the basement, and before they do they must establish some strict rules so they won’t be caught or traced to the house, and that includes turning over their cell phones. For the next few days they will be locked away, not just to protect the Barris family who would be liable for hiding undocumented workers, but for Ana and her son, the latter like any American kid not too keen on this idea of unforced incarceration just as he is preparing to go to college.
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It isn’t long before Nico starts questioning the family’s motives up to the point that the family has made this ICE thing up, and even as Ana insists she trusts them and believes they have only their best interests in mind. Bernstein however builds suspense and suspicion in developing each character as if they are hiding something – literally and figuratively. Peter, it turns out, is out of a job and worried about where the next one might be. Marianne is edgy, fidgety, suspicious of Nico and accusing him of snooping where he shouldn’t be. Lauren is the privileged daughter who is a bit rebellious and eventually finds Nico to be someone to whom she can actually relate – and even more. Tension is built as both sides of this class divide increasingly becoming more on edge by the minute.
This whole setup could easily have become the scenario for a horror film and likely would have in a studio film, but this crafty little indie has more on its mind that visceral thrills, instead taking a simple premise and using it to say something about the sorry state of our society in a period where there continues to be growing paranoia about border crossings and strangers at our gates. The timing is right here, even if at moments it seems like the deck is being stacked a bit too high. Still, this never drifts into any kind of white savior story of liberal employers helping the less fortunate immigrant family. It is far more complicated.
Acting honors go to Pacheco who is a real find at Nico and delivers a three dimensional portrait of this young man who has only known life in America but is now thrust into a situation where his future is thrown into question. Equally fine is Benavente, a Peruvian actress who nails the Salvadoran accent and is thoroughly believable here. Otto and Wyle struggle a bit to make their characters as credible, both a little too on edge here in the more melodramatic aspects of the story. Stanley comes off nicely as a girl three steps ahead of her parents and more open to new adventures.
At The Gates is a modest, claustrophobia psychological drama that hits its mark more than it misses and seems ripe for perilous times placing an individual family story front and center to make its point.
Executive Producers include Bob Berney, Armyan Bernstein, Colleen Camp, and Rodrigo Garcia. Jhanvi Motla and Paulo Torres join Bernstein as Producers.
Title: At The Gates
Release Date: November 3, 2023 (Limited – L.A./ NY)
Director/Screenplay: Augustus Meleo Bernstein
Cast: Miranda Otto, Noah Wyle, Ezekiel Pacheco, Vanessa Benavente, Sadie Stanley, Jack Eyman
Running Time: 1 hour and 37 minutes
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