Surely the plight of illegal aliens is grist for a gripping movie. But "Alambrista!," a low- budget effort from erstwhile documentarian Robert Young, ain't really it. Young, who wrote the screenplay on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976 after a career in network news, manages to spin out a lot of conventional wisdom -- and even some insights -- about Mexican migrants in the Southwestern United States, but he never manages to tell a story. What we get instead is a series of scenes -- some effective, some not so effective -- that barely hang together as narrative, and make one feel ultimately more ennobled than entertained. Kinda like watching a network documentary, the way they used to make 'em in the '60s. The movie, whose title roughly translates to "The Illegal," focuses on the troubles of Roberto Ramirez, a young farmer from the interior of Mexico who heads north to support his wife and infant daughter. Across the border, he meets other illegals -- who instruct him, in the movie's funniest scene, how to cross his legs like a gringo and order ham and eggs -- runs from the cops, shacks up with a Bible-thumping waitress who takes him to a tent revival, gets exploited and eventually deported. He tries again, having picked everything from tomatoes to melons, but finally decides the migrant's life is not for him. While the cast, with the exception of one Domingo Ambriz (who brings to the title role the evocative powers of a teacup), is fine on the whole, and Ned Beatty shows up to do his Sleazy Capitalist act, the movie suffers from Young's too frequent disregard for detail and occasionally slapdash writing. For instance, he has Roberto's young wife feeding her newborn daughter baby formula from a bottle -- still not the general custom among Mexico's poor -- as Roberto looks on in his freshly pressed slacks. Then, an ostensibly climactic scene, in which Roberto finds his long-lost father having a heart attack on a melon farm, plays as bloodless and confusing because we've just met the old guy, too, and he's in pretty bad shape already, so why should we care? Still, if you're interested in migrant workers, as Young believes you should be, "Alambrista!" might well be worth a try.

ALAMBRISTA! -- At the Inner Circle.