Matthew Newton’s From Nowhere follows three undocumented Bronx teenagers set to graduate high school—popular, hard-working Moussa (J. Mallory McCree), relentlessly sunny Alyssa (Racquel Castro), and surly, aggressive Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond). Each hails from different countries and has spent the majority of their lives in the United States, but now that they’re headed off to college, all are forced to deal with their immigration status. At the behest of Jackie (Julianne Nicholson), a sympathetic teacher, the three see a corporate immigration lawyer, Isaac (the great character actor Denis O’Hare), who pushes them to come up with evidence of murder, torture, or other nefarious behavior in their home countries so they can make a case for asylum. Meanwhile, they face pressures at school, in their homes (especially Sophie, who contends with neglect and sexual assault from her so-called guardians), and the world at large, as if at any moment, someone will find out they don’t belong. The land of the free comes with a lot more strings attached than any of them realize.
Even at its bluntest, most didactic, and sorely predictable, From Nowhere will likely move and outrage even the stoniest of the individuals. The idea that these three students have to spend their free time in a lawyer’s office mining their familial past for gruesome details just to have a shot to stay in a place they’ve always called home will make any decent individual’s blood boil. Sadly, it’s not a new or unfamiliar story, but Newton and co-writer Kate Ballen (who loosely based the film off a play she wrote) effectively humanize it simply by placing children at the film’s center. An actor’s director at heart, Newton maintains sharp focus on the three teens, treating them like individuals, complications and all. Moussa manages a needy girlfriend who wants to know more about him, while his mother (Chinasa Ogbuagu) struggles to pay the rent. Sophie constantly gets in fights with classmates who mock her appearance and behavior. Alyssa, a straight-A student, moves through the world blithely unaware that her model track record might not be enough to secure a place in her country. They’re not perfectly aware of the world’s myriad complications. They’re still kids after all.
Newton and Ballen depict the resolute unfairness at the center of these situations through a series of immovable situations. Why does Sophie have a better shot of acquiring papers than Alyssa, a valedictorian? Why does Moussa’s mother have to choose between telling her son the terrible truth about his father and sending her youngest son back to Guinea? Why do these kids all have to suddenly act like adults at the age of 17 or face deportation? What happened? To quote a Louis C.K. bit about the plight of the homeless, “America happened.”
From Nowhere doesn’t solely depict cruelty and in fact goes out of its way to showcase empathy from many authority figures, but even that is negotiated by self-interest and circumstance. A scummy landlord (Jim Norton) walks into Moussa’s apartment and demands their rent, and when they inevitably come up short, he relents and gives some of the money back just so they can eat. Jackie tries her best to guide Moussa on his way to a fulfilling life, but makes a crucial fuck-up that has disastrous consequences. Two cops stop Moussa and his friends after a nasty street altercation and let them off with a warning partially out of compassion but mostly out of convenience (it’s freezing outside). Finally, Isaac, who initially comes across as callous and unfocused, scouring the teens’ lives for the best possible case, eventually comes through for Sophie. In the most moving scene in the film, he tells her that he’ll fight for her tooth and nail, but unfortunately, she’s the only one he can do anything for.
Though From Nowhere gets so much right about teen angst and modern urban life, it’s still plagued by weak characterizations and narrative convenience. Newton and Ballen spend almost zero time shading in Alyssa just for a last-minute, feel-bad rug pull that works in the moment but still feels baldly manipulative. Secondary and tertiary characters are two-dimensional at best, and while that wouldn’t be a big issue in any other film, it stands out when characters inevitably stand for mouthpieces in service of a message. There’s one too many scenes of characters spouting political talking points that are accurate and necessary but make for weak drama. From Nowhere does so well with the details but it can never seem to handle the broad strokes.
From Nowhere will inevitably receive extra attention in light of current events, especially President Donald Trump’s travel ban and reports of frequent ICE raids that tear families apart. It’s difficult to deny the film’s political power in the face of widespread xenophobia; the mere act of showcasing these real-life struggles amounts to an active expression of humanity. Through From Nowhere, characters repeatedly speak to hoping for “the laws to change” instead of risking deportation just by trying to acquire papers, which takes on a special kind of sadness amidst our current national climate. “You wanna see what it looks like waiting for the landscape to change?” asks Isaac near the end of the film with just the right amount of despair in his voice. Unfortunately, too many people know exactly what it looks like, even from afar.