Immigration is as topical as it has ever been. With the theme playing a major role in the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections (and the often controversial viewpoints) that dominate them, the questions surrounding immigration are very much on people's minds.

What people usually point to in the immigration debate is the legality of the undocumented peoples in the U.S. Many point to their taking jobs few others want. Others, including a number of prominent presidential candidates, refuse to look at them in a humanizing manner. What no one seems to ever wonder or care about is how these people themselves feel about their particular circumstances.

Cinema often offers a rather potent look at the journey of immigration and past efforts have framed the overcoming of tragedy and pain as a victory in and of itself. Just look at the hopeful ending to "A Better Life" for a source of inspiration for immigrants who despite their challenges, always find a way back.

Yet there are a number of other efforts that highlight the tragedy and show that, despite the small victory, too much is often loss along the way and at the end of the road is nothing but dejection and rejection. Cary Fukunaga's "Sin Nombre" was one such film, and Diego Quemada-Diez's "La Jaula de Oro" highlights this to even greater extent.

The film's opening sections, in which their voiceless teenage protagonists essentially strip themselves of their own identities, is rather poignant. Juan (Brandon Lopez) walks through a maze-like projects, his face looking away from the others around him; the walls are ever present, making the space feel all the more constricted and painful to endure. At the end of his long walk, the camera jumping between following him from behind and from in front, he is "shot at" by two children playing with toy guns, a hint of the hardships to come. Then the feature cuts to Sara (Karen Martinez) as she enters the women's bathroom and completely destroys her identity. She cuts her hair, wraps her breasts tightly and assumes a male persona for the long journey.

Then the heroes are off on their search for the American Dream alongside their friend Samuel (Carlos Chajon) and eventually by a Guatemalan native Chaulk (Rodolfo Dominguez) who does not speak any Spanish.

The initial steps of the voyage are marked by their silence, the heroes venturing into a few missteps along the way and the team slowly diminishes with Samuel leaving the journey early on after a deportation from Mexico.

That serves as a premonition for what is to come, but even the viewer cannot anticipate how painful and grueling Quemada-Diez's film can get. The characters grow closer together and yet tragedy looms large throughout the story, with the narrative constantly shifting the point-of-view on the audience, only to remove it entirely later on as (PLOT SPOILER) major characters are cruelly taken off screen. And death is not the only answer here, as the fates are arguably worse; the audience is left wondering about their destinies and worrying greatly about the outcomes.

Visually this film really plays on the idea of isolation and exile. As Juan and his friends journey closer to "freedom" we start to see images of division and estrangement. We see a wall separating the Mexican and American border. At one point Juan and his companions are stuck underground in pure darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel a small blip on the screen. At another juncture, Juan and Chaulk look in on a toy train set, the glass barrier clearly delineated. Stark gates appear throughout, with openings growing in size and yet the sense of isolation and separation all the more prominent.

Then comes the snow motif, a visual image filled with mystery and contemplation. Initially the viewer sees it through what appear to be dream sequences. The falling snow is usually cut with a shot of a major character sleeping, adding to this notion. However when the snow motif finally reaches its apotheosis in the film's climax the meaning becomes all too painfully clear -- the dream world the characters have been setting out for is a cold and frigid one; a world that is ultimately unwelcoming.

The film's generally progression from day to night (it opens during the day and by the end the majority of scenes are in the nighttime) highlights the mood of impending tragedy with the American Dream ultimately being little more than an unattainable ideal.

At the core however is how these three main youths mature into selfless beings, each one showing compassion and kindness to their friends. Early on it is Sara bringing the joy and allowing Chaulk into their circle. Then Chaulk makes his heroic move before Juan does the same. It all adds to a tremendous sense of pity for these characters when one charts their respective developments and witnesses how unfair the world turns out for them. As Juan, Lopez is quiet and timid. One could say the same for his co-stars, but Martinez and Dominguez light up the screen with some playful chemistry. Watch the two flirt throughout the hopeful opening sections. The film's center comes during a nighttime feast in which Sara and Juan come together and reveal their intimate feelings for one another. Martinez is at her most energetic, dominating the scene with her aloof dance moves.

"La Jaula de Oro" is a challenging film. Of that there can be no doubt. Audiences looking for a riveting and uplifting immigration tale will be shocked to find a grueling look at the thankless journey of crossing the border and its less than glamorous outcome. People know the outcome does not live up to the billing, but few people understand just how painful it can be to end up with such mistreatment after enduring a tortuous journey to get to the promised land to begin with. The aptly named "Jaula de Oro" gives us a view into the problem.

Will Audiences Like it?

This is not a crowd-pleasing film and people who are rabidly against undocumented immigrants may find little of interest to them. Those looking at intensely rich art that uncovers the pain of the immigration process from this perspective will discover a newfound appreciation for the subject.