For his feature debut, writer-director Joshua Marston laces his title, Maria Full of Grace, with sardonic wordplay. The leading character, Maria, is a drug mule, who swallows 62 potentially deadly drug pellets to smuggle them from her Colombian home to the United States. Marston suffuses her heartbreaking journey of painful self-realization with nearly unbearable tension and a horrible sorrow; the result is a simple but tart serving of social realism.
In a terrific first-time film performance marked with a perpetual hangdog look, Catalina Sandino Moreno plays Maria, a wholly credible seventeen-year-old heroine faced regularly with affronts to her well-being. She reacts to the financial hardship of her crowded house, an ungrateful boyfriend, and an unwanted pregnancy with understandable but miscalculated attempts at self-preservation. From the start, Maria betrays a daredevil spirit and precocious intelligence: she scales a building to have sex or, more likely, to avoid it, since the skittish boyfriend predictably refuses. Soon after, Maria engages him in an ugly breakup (finally aghast at his insensitivity, she blurts, "What kind of person are you?"). She works, under sweatshop conditions, at a flower plantation, but morning sickness soon renders the job impossible.
Off-balance and vulnerable, Maria makes an easy mark for a flirtateous drug dealer named Franklin (Jhon Alex Toro) and the druglord to whom he leads her, played by co-producer Jaime Osorio Gómez. A volatile mix of curiosity, temptation, and desperation leads Maria to agree to become a drug mule, with the promise of a big payoff and the possibility of accidental death for mother and child should any one of the dozens of drug pellets burst in her stomach. For better or worse, Maria gains the criminal companionship of her best friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), but their relationship deteriorates into surly backbiting.
Before long, Maria feels stirrings of defiance against the unjust, corrupt exploitation of her new job and, fearfully, demands of life her basic human rights. Marston's studied portrayal of Colombia gives way to a snapshot of New York's Colombian-American immigrants, with community leader Orlando Tóbon essentially playing himself in the character of Don Fernando.
Marston's scrupulous and unsettling approach to the subtitled, Spanish-language film earned Maria Full of Grace the Dramatic Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and it's easy to see why. Marston takes an important topic and cuts right to the bone with clear character motivation and a torturous mise en scène (particularly the carefully recreated process of crafting and swallowing the drug pellets). Marston lets in a ray of hope by the film's end, but never lets us forget the tremendous, daunting odds facing modern Colombia, where upwards of 80% of the population lives in poverty.