“Five Years North” follows two New Yorkers whose paths you hope will never cross. Luis is an undocumented 16-year-old from Guatemala, who at the film’s outset has just been released from detention and awaits a court date. Judy is a middle-age Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer overseeing Luis’s neighborhood. Zach Ingrasci and Chris Temple’s documentary isn’t a cat-and-mouse thriller, but watching Luis try to scrape together money to send home while Judy’s team prowls for immigrants — at one point arresting a man as he takes his daughter to school — is often an exercise in edge-of-the-seat anxiety.
The filmmakers have known Luis’s family for a decade, which explains the remarkable access they acquire to his life. Mixing interviews and observational scenes, they trace the boy’s compressed coming-of-age. He precariously juggles school, an exhausting job delivering food and homesick FaceTime calls with his parents, who face crushing debts and poverty.
Judy also lets the filmmakers into her office and home, revealing details that might surprise some. Her father is from Puerto Rico, and her mother, who is Cuban, used to resettle refugees. Judy concedes that immigration policy is flawed, though her main gripe is that it lumps together “criminals and non-criminals.” She’s simply — as goes the bureaucratic refrain — “doing her job.”
There’s much to unpack here, from the preponderance of Latino agents in ICE to the mental health effects of immigration, evident in Luis’s panic attacks. But the film, frustratingly, stays on the surface, settling for easy emotional moments: crosscuts between Judy and Luis talking about family; the two of them gazing up at Fourth of July fireworks. Systemic injustices remain in the blurry background of these sentimental, humanist portraits.
Five Years North
Not rated. In English, Spanish and Kaqchikel, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes. In New York at Film Forum.