“You’ve got to start trusting someone,” a teacher (Julianne Nicholson) implores one of her students Sophie (Octavia Chavez-Richmond), in what isn’t your ordinary student-teacher conference in “From Nowhere.” What you realize in that moment is that the rebellious teen who came to the Bronx at 7 by way of the Dominican Republic can’t, no matter how well-intended those around her may be, a testament to the heartwrenching drama that co-writer/director Matthew Newton and co-writer Kate Ballen have created in which a trio of teens seek political asylum as a way of finally becoming citizens years after settling down in the U.S. illegally.
A heady subject handled with grace and considerable empathy, “From Nowhere” avoids a didactic take on immigration by focusing on the emotional toll of being the child of an immigrant, residing inside a country you can never call home but disconnected from the place you were born but not raised and living in fear of ever being asked for identification. From the moment Newton thrusts you inside the classroom shared by Sophie, Moussa (J. Mallory McCree), and Alyssa (Raquel Castro) as they discuss “King Lear,” the seemingly mundane is imbued with Shakespearean stakes as you soon come to learn that despite looking no different than their classmates, the teacher has taken a special interest in these three, sending them to an immigration attorney (Denis O’Hare) to help resolve their citizenship issues before graduating high school. However, in needing to identify a threat back home that will garner a judge’s sympathy, Sophie, Moussa and Alyssa find themselves at a loss, remembering next to nothing, if that, about their home countries of the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Guinea and Peru, respectively.
For a time, one might wonder why Sophie and Moussa, in particular, might be so intent on staying, their lives in the U.S. a constant struggle as Sophie lives with an uncle none too happy to have her and Moussa’s family barely making ends meet with multiple mouths to feed, but both know no other way and more than anything, Newton and Ballen wring great tension from the still-potent notion of the American Dream and the reality of day-to-day survival. Both Chavez-Richmond and McCree convey the weight of this great burden on their shoulders while also effortlessly expressing the promise that their teacher sees in them, and the film does well to flesh each character out to all but give them a dual identity, showing the people they must be in public versus in private.
It’s no small feat that “From Nowhere” is able to pack a wallop without ever calling attention to itself, with “Sun Don’t Shine” cinematographer Jay Keitel’s intuitive camerawork setting a tone early that allows “From Nowhere” to sneak in under your skin and powerhouse turns from Nicholson and O’Hare judiciously handled to give the film a certain credibility while allowing its teen leads remain front and center. While Newton stages a number of scenes that seem chaotic on the surface, they must be the product of keen direction on the set and even more delicate massaging in terms of editing and sound design later, resulting in a drama that feels every bit as natural as it does electric. “From Nowhere” may be all about the difficulty of fitting in, but ultimately, it can’t help but stand out.