With immigration on a lot of people’s minds these days, it’s no surprise that artists are trying to respond to political and social changes. Some have tried dramatizing the perilous journey from Central America, as Alejandro González Iñárritu did with his VR project Carne y Arena. Others have tried to recreate the state of detainment centers holding deportees like Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra’s documentary hybrid The Infiltrators, or revisit the not-so-distant past as Robert Greene did with Bisbee ‘17.

Andrew Morgan’s gut-wrenching drama Long Gone By is another production with its heart in the right place and its mind on the struggles of undocumented people trying to survive in a system built to keep them excluded. But the director doesn’t seem to have thought through some aspects of his script with co-writer David Wappel; this is just one uneasy problem artists must face when creating in such volatile times.

In the movie, Ana (Erica Muñoz) is a hardworking single mom from Nicaragua who’s trying to give her daughter Izzy (Izzy Hau’ula) the best opportunities the U.S. can afford them. When Izzy gets accepted into a state school, Ana runs into every roadblock imaginable in trying to help her daughter go to college. In desperation, and with a deportation order on the horizon, Ana turns to crime to pay for her daughter’s tuition bill.

There’s an inherent conundrum in where Morgan and Wappel decide to take the story. One argument is that he’s painstakingly dramatizing the Kafka-esque bureaucratic hell Ana tries to navigate to give her daughter the same chances as her classmates. First, because they’re undocumented, Izzy will be charged out-of-state tuition even though she’s grown up in the state she calls home. Because of that, she won’t qualify for state financial aid either. When Ana tries to go to the bank to get a loan, first they slam her with a high interest rate then deny her outright because she doesn’t have the right paperwork. She turns to the wealthy woman whose house she cleans for help, but Ana’s treated to a condescending talk about pulling herself up by her bootstraps. Foiled again, the tension in the movie builds, the camera moves a little more frantically to mirror Ana’s restlessness. It’s effectively dramatic without being too emotionally overwhelming.

Courtesy of Shark Party Media

However, when Ana turns to robbing banks as the solution to her problems, I’m at a moral crossroads. There seems to be no other solution for her out there, no last-minute Daddy Warbucks to swoop in and send her girl to college. Yet, turning to robbery falls right into what the hateful rhetoric says we are: criminals. The script tries to redeem her by Ana’s insistence that she and her slimy partner-in-crime don’t use guns on their heists, but the damage is done. If pushed so far, that’s the path we’d take? There are not enough other narratives about immigration and DREAMers out there to give Long Gone By a scot-free pass.

Fortunately, the movie’s visual style is less muddy than its morals. Cinematographer Lance Kuhns takes in the extremes of Ana’s situation between gorgeous sunny afternoons spent on nearly empty rolling Midwestern streets and the darkness of the early mornings when Ana gets up at 5 a.m. to make her daughter food and prepare for the day ahead. At the film’s center is this surprisingly tender story of sacrifice and motherly love. Muñoz’s performance gets at the internal struggle of her characters’ many worries. How will her daughter take care of herself? How will she tell her daughter their days together are coming to an end? Where will she ever find so much money for Izzy’s school? Will she get caught? Are those police sirens outside?

Long Gone By doesn’t need the artificial stakes of having Ana go the Bonnie & Clyde route to pay tuition. The pieces of a great human drama are already in place between the mother-daughter relationship and the approaching deadlines of deportation and enrollment. It’s a movie with a message — but one harder to grasp when hidden by sensationalism.

Long Gone By screened at the 2019 New York Latino Film Festival.