A section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall in director Ben Masters’s “The River and the Wall.” The Rio Grande forms part of that border, and it serves as a vehicle for an exploration of the environmental and social impacts of an expanded wall. (Gravitas Ventures/“The River and The Wall”)

Five friends, 1,200 miles, one iconic river. That could be a formula for a great buddy movie. But “The River and the Wall,” a film that begins with that premise, is no rollicking road trip.

The film, now in theaters and on-demand on major online platforms, follows a different path: the U.S.-Mexico border. The Rio Grande forms part of that border, and it serves as a vehicle for an exploration of the environmental and social impacts of a potential border wall.

Director Ben Masters is an environmental documentarian with a background in wildlife biology. He’s also a character in the film, which follows a trip he took with four friends by bike, horse and canoe. An ornithologist, a river guide, a conservationist and a National Geographic explorer round out the crew. Two of the characters have a special connection to the wall itself: Illegal border crossings are part of their personal stories.

The mission is to find out how a wall might affect the people, wildlife and plants along the river. The friends follow the river and even get in it, stopping to interview wildlife biologists, Border Patrol agents and then-U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.).

But the real star of the show is the river. It’s home to birds, bears, fish. It feeds delicate and varied ecosystems. It creates a deep sense of identity for both Mexicans and Americans.


A scene from “The River and the Wall.” (Gravitas Ventures/“The River and The Wall”)

This is a film with an agenda. Scientists have long sounded the alarm on the wall. In 2018, more than 2,500 researchers signed a paper that lays out some of the threats, which range from wasting conservation investments to causing floods, endangering animal migrations and destroying all kinds of habitats.

The film sides with those scientists — and will probably prompt passionate conversation. It may stoke more than debate, however, leaving viewers with a new perspective on the river.

The soaring visuals of the Rio Grande have a grace and gravitas that transcends politics. And though “The River and the Wall” has something to say, it’s most powerful when it doesn’t say anything at all.