The alternative is being a "mule," smuggling heroin into the U.S. That involves swallowing packets of the drug (62 of them in her case) in Colombia and excreting them once she has cleared customs in El Norte. It's ugly work (you may want to avert your eyes while she is endlessly swallowing the drugs)--and dangerous too. If a packet breaks, the heroin will kill the carrier. But, of course, the money is great thousands of dollars for a week's unpleasantness, enough to lift Maria's fractious family out of poverty and pay for the birth of the baby she is carrying.
In a way, however, her adventures in the criminal underworld are just a pretext. What we come to care most about in writer-director Joshua Marston's film is how his heroine achieves the state promised by his title, Maria Full of Grace. Our emotional investment in her derives primarily from the astonishing performance of Moreno, 23.
This is not merely a matter of fresh-faced beauty. It has more to do with the unmediated openness of her work. Playing a 17-year-old, she never imparts the slightest hint of calculation in her reactions. She is pure instinct at once, for example, eager for boys yet wary of them full of flashing anger, impatient for adventure, sexual and otherwise, yet also full of doubts, which assail her when she thinks no one is looking. This isn't acting, it's behaving. And it is behaving with a point. Without quite knowing it herself, this child-woman wants to become the good person that she inarticulately senses is hidden beneath her heedless petulance.
Marston doesn't make that easy for her in this unpretentious and straightforward film. She's almost caught by customs officers in New York City. Her friend Lucy (Guilied Lopez) sickens and dies when heroin poisons her. Another friend, Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), turns out to be at once rebellious and dependent when she and Maria are stranded, broke and friendless, on the New York streets. Yet somehow Maria prevails.
Immigrant fictions are always hymns to persistence, to scrambling for a hard, narrow, marginal place in the newfound land. They also depend for their effectiveness on a lack of overt sentiment. And that may be the best thing about Maria Full of Grace. Maria's circumstances may keep changing, but she accepts them and the consequences of her desperate responses to them; she makes no special pleas for herself; she just keeps moving ahead, never entirely sure where she is going. Vulnerable, always obliged to master new difficulties, she elicits our sympathy even finally our love without ever suing for it.