At the Gates Is a Thought-Provoking ICE-Raid Thriller

Photo: courtesy Picturehouse.

Many might recall the horrific events of 2017 when ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids were on the rise in Los Angeles neighborhoods, specifically the wealthier areas (and all over the country). In a time where millions of undocumented women, men, and children feared for their lives every single day, getting separated from one’s family and returning to their home country was a dreadful reality. Augustus Meleo Bernstein’s feature film debut thoughtfully incorporates these raids as the chilling driving force of the plot for At the Gates

Teenager Nico Ibarra (Ezekiel Pacheco) and his mother, Ana Ibarra (Vanessa Benavente), are immigrants from El Salvador who have resided in Los Angeles for 16 years. Ana has landed a steady job cleaning beautiful homes in the affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles’ Hancock Park. She’s employed by the Barris family, which is how she supports herself and Nico—who seems to have a bright future ahead of him, as he is about to go to college. The juxtaposition of their small and cramped apartment compared to the massive, sprawling homes signifies the drastic difference in lifestyles and incomes. 

One day, Ana decides to ask Nico to join her since she could use some additional help. Nico has never seen the house nor met the Barrises. Naturally, he is overcome with excitement and intrigue as he lays eyes on the upscale, polished single-family home. Nico’s first meeting with the superficially sincere matriarch, Marianne Barris (Miranda Otto) isn’t quite genial, coming across cold and offputting. Already, something about her seems odd. Peter Barris (Noah Wyle), the family’s patriarch and breadwinner, is a prototypical hardworking male who spends more time in his office than with his two well-behaved children, the preppy but rebellious Lauren (Sadie Stanley), and reserved Oliver (Jack Eyman). 

Marianne Barris looking distraught in a tense, darkly-lit scene.
Miranda Otto in At the Gates. Photo: courtesy Picturehouse.

As the day progresses, a sudden ring at the Barrises’ front gate pushes the story into a frantic motion. ICE officers are making their rounds in the neighborhood, searching for Ana and Nico as part of a strict crackdown on government policy. Marianne insists they stay in the home for a few days (Peter initially fights against this due to the imminent risks) until it’s deemed safe to leave — the potential threat of getting caught adds to the film’s intensity. It’s a dangerous situation for everybody involved, and the fragility of the situation is undeniable. Bernstein does a fantastic job of interweaving tension and sociopolitical subtext in At the Gates

Nico begins to suspect they’re not keeping them there as a means of protection but holding them as hostages in the basement, only allowed to come out at certain times of the day. The Barrises’ intentions are questioned, and nothing is as it seems. Are they the real villains? Peter and Marianne are nuanced, three-dimensional characters with much more going on than meets the eye. On top of experiencing ongoing marital struggles, Peter constantly worries about getting another job to support his family. Otto and Wyle complement each other perfectly, showcasing their imperfections and humanity, which isn’t always inherently good.

The Barrises’ daughter, Lauren, takes a liking to Nico amidst suspicions from Marianne and Peter that he is an up-to-no-good thief. Nico is tough and wise and understands what’s at stake, stepping up to save himself and his mom when things could have gone from bad to potentially life-threatening. Nico is the hero of his narrative, and Bernstein consciously chooses to give him that freedom—what’s compelling is what Nico does with it. 

Nico and his mother, Ana, in a heartwarming embrace, as Ana looks off into the distance.
Ezekiel Pacheco and Vanessa Benavente in At the Gates. Photo: courtesy Picturehouse.

Race and class dynamics are present in nearly every scene and every frame of the film, constantly reminding the audience how different these characters are but also how similar. Bernstein’s sharp script portrays people as people, no matter where they come from and their place (or lack thereof) in society. The underlying commentary will hopefully aid in a deeper understanding of the plight of immigrants in the United States, chasing after the American Dream…whatever that may be. Putting ourselves in another’s shoes is more than necessary—it’s imperative. 

As the present-day events of border immigration occur in the nation, Bernstein’s film serves as an integral piece of the larger puzzle surrounding many themes. Class dynamics, racial tension, immigration enforcement, and the beneficial role that undocumented workers play in the American economy are key issues that are relevant and important—they must be discussed in today’s rapidly changing global climate. 

With twists at every turn, the possibilities are endless and thrilling. Its well-rounded characters come alive from the page onto the screen. At the Gates is a brilliant debut, packed with emotion, in addition to being tightly paced, effectively edited, and stunningly shot.

Written by Lilli Keeve

Lilli has had a passion for movies her entire life. She has a BS in Film Studies with an emphasis in Film Analysis and Theory from Portland State University in the beautiful downtown Portland, Oregon. Lilli has an AA degree in English from West Los Angeles College in Culver City, CA, known as the Heart of Screenland.

She has also done freelance writing for Looper, Pinnacle Magazine, and Film Daily and has her own film review blog. When she’s not rewatching her favorite films or searching for a new TV show to binge, she’s reading or taking photographs.

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  1. Wow, your stunning review makes me want to run out and immediately watch this important movie. Thank you for your insightful critique of this compelling and timely film.

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