The life of many an undocumented domestic worker is marked by fear. The threat of deportation may feel remote at times, but it hovers over them nonetheless — and structures their experience in ways both big and small. Exploiting such paranoia, Augustus Meleo Bernstein’s provocative if listless “At the Gates” creates a scenario where a housekeeper and her teenage son must trust her employers when ICE agents (or so they’re told) arrive in search of them both. Aiming to be a tense drama about trust, the film struggles to balance the personal and cultural stakes at the heart of its neat conceit.
When Ana (Vanessa Benavente, a standout) arrives at her employer’s lavish home with her son Nico (Ezekiel Pacheco) in tow, she expects that day to be like many before. She’s worked for Marianne (Miranda Otto) and Peter Barris (Noah Wyle) for months now and takes pride in what she does. Nico may see this stint he’s starting as a stepping stone before he heads to college, but all that comes crashing down with a doorbell ring. It’s the police — or immigration enforcement, specifically. In an instant, Ana and Nico’s world shatters. They’re given a choice: They could head home and risk being caught by ICE officers who are actively looking for them or they can hide out in a makeshift room in the Barris’ basement. They begrudgingly choose the latter.
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The film’s premise is intriguing. Meleo Bernstein’s original screenplay sets up an intriguing scenario wherein Ana and Nico must lay their entire sense of safety and security in the hands of their employers — an exaggerated version of what housekeepers like Ana do every day. Mother and son have to trust Marianne and Peter wholeheartedly. Their lives depend on it. But what if they’re not telling the truth? Why does this rich couple have a secret hideout that can only be locked from the outside? Are they keeping them safe or are they merely keeping them inside?
Nico is rightly suspicious while Ana is unwavering in her conviction that her employers are shielding them from harm. But as the days go by and their every movement is more closely monitored (no staring out windows, no access to their own phones, as security cameras track their every move), the fraught feeling that both families are working in each other’s best interest begins to fray. Could it be that instead of this being a tale of two good Samaritans doing a selfless deed, we’re witnessing a twisted kidnapping story about indentured servitude?
On the strength of that premise of mutual suspicion (per their story, Marianne and Peter are harboring Ana and Nico at their own peril, after all), “At the Gates” might have been a tense thriller anchored by two mutually self-perpetuating tropes, that of the “model immigrant” and the “white savior.” Indeed, a dinner scene where the Barris kids (a teenage girl and a young boy) get to witness their mother unable to distinguish El Salvador from Mexico and later hear Ana telling a harrowing tale of how she first fled to the U.S. after losing her husband to violence, brims with promise the rest of the film cannot sustain.
All too focused on offering in Marianne a portrait of a conflicted woman intent on doing the right thing and thus complicating that latter trope, the film forgets to give Ana an equally complex role to play in her own story (despite the gripping grace Benavente brings to the role). With a languid pace that eventually undercuts the intended tension, “At the Gates” has its heart in the right place in wanting to give a voice to the plight of undocumented domestic workers. But the film, handsomely lensed by DP Alan Torres and featuring an oft-distracting score by Julia Newman, continually finds one too many subplots and ancillary scenes that detract from its would-be gripping, timely setup.
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