Writer/director Augustus Meleo Bernstein delivers a slow-burn psychological thriller with At the Gates. The film explores the human side of today’s hot social issues, such as immigration enforcement, and the role of undocumented workers in America’s economy. The story finds a Salvadoran housekeeper and her teenage son suddenly questioning whether they are being protected or imprisoned after a wealthy couple allows them to hide from persistent immigration officers in their basement.
The film offers a solid cast, featuring Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings, The Clearing), Noah Wyle (ER), Sadie Stanley (Cruel Summer), and exceptional turns by Vanessa Benavente and Ezekiel Pacheco. In advance of the film’s opening, filmmaker Bernstein and stars Otto, Stanley, and Benavente shared more with MovieWeb about the film, its deeper themes, and the timeliness of the tale. Dive in.
The Genesis of the Film
What begins as an average workday for Salvadoran housekeeper Ana (Vanessa Benavente), turns into a mind-bending odyssey. Ana brings her teenage son Nico (Ezekiel Pacheco) to help her clean the home of an affluent family in the Hancock Park region of Los Angeles. There’s a ring from the front gate, and her employers, Marianne (Miranda Otto) and Peter Barris (Noah Wyle), soon inform them that immigration officers are searching for them. The couple convinces the pair to take refuge in a basement closet, insisting they turn over their phones, too. But as the days pass, the two families begin to question the other’s integrity. The premise sets the tone for a gripping thriller.
“In 2017, there were an increase of immigration raids happening in Los Angeles and people that I knew were scared and sheltering in place,” said writer/director Augustus Meleo Bernstein of the genesis of the project. “I grew up Jewish and with the story of Anne Frank. I saw this idea for a contemporary Anne Frank story about a family that’s hiding from the police inside another family’s house, and the tensions and mistrusts that happened between the two as they’re dealing with the situation together. Ultimately, I just wanted to tell a story that humanizes a polarizing topic we have in this country, which is how we deal with immigration.”
Shot in Hancock Park over three weeks, Bernstein noted the cast brought their best to the roles, and that he was mesmerized by Vanessa Benavente and Ezekiel Pacheco’s performances. “Vanessa was the first person I ever met for this,” he shared. “We had this instant connection. She totally understood this character and wanted to do a lot of research to bring her to life. When we found Ezekiel Pacheco… in real life, he came to America when he was only a year old. He lived in Los Angeles without papers for his entire life, and he’s here under the DACA program which gives him a visa and allows him to work.
“Ezekiel gravitated to this project and felt how honest it was,” he further noted. “He wanted to bring some of his real-life experiences to the script. We started collaborating together and bringing this movie to the page, so that it would portray some of the fears that he had gone through as a kid.”
Sadie Stanley on Ezekiel Pacheco
“Ezekiel and I really had similar acting styles,” shared Sadie Stanley, who plays Lauren, the Barris’ teenage daughter in the film. Lauren and Nico share heartfelt moments in At the Gates, giving both characters an opportunity to question their perspective. “We both wanted everything to feel grounded and really raw. The first time I met Ezekiel, I was like, ‘Yeah, this makes sense. He’s perfect for this role.’ So, this is a great feature debut for him, and he really knocks it out of the park.”
The Cruel Summer star also said she is eager to see what the young actor does next. Mostly, Stanley admitted that she was drawn to the story because it felt so unique and rare:
I’d never seen a story like this be told, especially in this way. I loved that a psychological thriller. Those are like my favorite movies. So that was exciting for me. But I also loved that the heart of the film is this amazing and true and important story being told about a mother and son who are undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, and their experiences.
Miranda Otto Praises the Experience
By all accounts, Miranda Otto is one of the finest actresses working today. Between her work in The Lord of the Rings films as shieldmaiden Eowyn and in TV series such as Homeland and The Clearing, she is a consummate performer. In the character of Marianne Barris, she found an opportunity to portray an affluent woman torn by the passing of time and a desire to make a difference. Or, perhaps, protect that which she loves most.
“I was just fascinated by Marianne and how she wanted to try to do something positive in the world, then the repercussions of that,” Otto explained. “I was fascinated by how little she knows of the situation [of immigration].
“I think at this moment in time, when you’re talking about immigration in America, it’s an examination of it on a whole personal level,” she added of the hot topic issue. “It’s important to really get into the characters and see people as human beings and understand more about the situation.”
Vanessa Benavente’s Performance
Vanessa Benavente will turn heads in At the Gates. Originally from Peru, she says one of the reasons she was drawn to the project was because of her close ties to her own mother. “I have two small children, so I guess motherhood, for me, still encompasses every part of my life right now. It’s so present,” she explained. “I had visceral reactions to a lot of the scenes. I remember turning a page [in the script] at one point and knowing exactly what Ana was going to say. So, that made me feel a lot of compassion and empathy towards this woman. I understood her at a very deep level.”
She noted that audiences will appreciate some of the twists in the film and find compassion for Ana and Nico’s dilemma. “There were some very emotional themes in the movie. The tone of the film… starts in one place, then starts leaning into this area where you start to wonder what everybody’s intentions are. I think that will really surprise people.”
If you’re ready to be surprised, At the Gates opens in select theaters November 3 in Los Angeles and November 10 in New York, with wider release in the future.