Leo (Christopher Bustos) and Emma (Daniela Vidaurre) are a young Mexican couple who leave their comfortable hometown lives in hopes of finding prosperity in California. Emma isn’t sold on the journey. She’s happily surrounded by family and friends — not to mention expecting their first child — and crossing the border sounds incredibly dangerous. But she’s in love with Leo and trusts his vision that their daughter would find more opportunity if born inside the United States, so she agrees to make the journey with him. Por Mi Hija (For My Daughter) is about the struggles they face living illegally and trying to raise a family amid a culture that doesn’t respect them. It packs in a lot of character work into a short running time but unfortunately features a third-act twist that doesn’t quite mesh with the effectively grounded tone of the rest of the piece.

Still, let’s focus on the good first: Writer-director Fernando Rodriguez takes a much different approach to the story of immigrants in California by depicting their lives in Mexico as essentially happy even though they’re living in a poor town. There’s a tendency for a lot of media to show immigrants moving to the United States because their home countries are rotting hellholes, which is not the case. Leo’s desire to move to the United States to take a job as a farmworker outside of Fresno is understandable but creates real tension early on to anyone who knows how those workers are treated and what he’s leaving behind. He’s not wrong to seek out a bigger dream for his family, but it may well be a mirage. The American Dream is not for everyone, especially those who actually believe in it.

Leo and Emma have a star-crossed small-town romance that unfolds through flashbacks to their youth that contrast with their burgeoning marital difficulties once they’ve lived in California for a few years. Once fully transplanted, the two both work long hours at menial jobs, living in a trailer and constantly nervous about law enforcement. Their daughter, Luciana (Luciana Elisa Quinonez), is a precocious, loving little girl who lights up both their lives — and it kills Emma each day to drop her off with a babysitter when she has to go to work. Leo’s laboring in the farm fields drives him to drink and embark on absences from his home. With no extended family or system of support, the two start to crumble. Could they just return home to Mexico? No, Leo refuses to give up on the life he still believes is possible for Luciana and their family.

The family-drama portion of the film is relatively straightforward stuff. We see how Leo and Emma grew together and, in the present, fall apart. Thanks to Bustos and Vidaurre, the romance really clicks, and it’s harrowing to watch them at odds. Their eventual confrontation is shocking and upsetting, but the way it ends is so melodramatic that it undercuts the solid dramatic work that built up to it. I’m talking around the big twist, of course, and it’s a real doozy. (No, he does not kill Emma.) From that point on, the film is all about the fallout of that one big moment in their lives. What felt like a well-acted and tense relationship drama about a loving couple trapped in a downward spiral becomes a single-minded dirge. Although what happens, and the follow-up, works on a metaphorical level with regards to the movie’s vision of Leo’s American Dream, it just doesn’t feel as authentic as the rest of the story.

This is apparently the debut feature film for Rodriguez, though, and it’s an impressive first time at bat; he also served as cinematographer and editor, and the film benefits from being his singular vision. Por Mi Hija moves at a good pace and features characters who are immediately compelling. The three lead performances seem effortless, and Rodriguez does a good job avoiding the common stereotypes seen in immigrant stories. Although the ending didn’t work for me, the film is still a solid debut feature and a worthwhile watch.