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The hypnotic opening sequence of Most Beautiful Island — shot with a penetrating eye by Noah Greenberg in handheld Super 16mm and effectively interweaving the thrumming soundscape of New York City with the quiet strains of Jeffery Alan Jones’ unsettling score — subtly identifies seven different women among the Manhattan crowds in various locations. All of them are young and attractive, though seemingly unrelated. How much you buy into the dehumanizing spider web that later draws these women together will depend on your willingness to go with writer-director Ana Asensio’s lurch from lucid naturalism into queasy quasi-horror.
The no-budget indie’s distinctive take on the harrowing experience of undocumented women immigrants gives it a timeliness that possibly contributed to its win of this year’s SXSW Grand Jury Prize, the top narrative honors at the fest. The thumbprint of genre auteur Larry Fessenden as a producer (he also turns up onscreen as a sleazebag thug) could help secure some niche theatrical play, but home screens will be a better fit.
A seasoned Spanish TV actress stepping behind the camera for the first time to tell a story inspired by her own life, Asensio plays Luciana, whose troubled past is alluded to only briefly in a phone call from New York to her mother, who urges her to return to Spain. A family tragedy that appears to involve a daughter weighs heavily on her.
She lives in an outer-borough apartment for which she can barely make the rent. In the one substantial bit of foreshadowing of the disturbing developments to come, she rips off the landlord’s duct-tape repair on the bathroom wall while she’s soaking in the tub. This uncovers a nest of roaches, scrambling over one another to survive as they land in the water at her feet.
With no Social Security number, she’s limited to low-paying Craigslist jobs like babysitting bratty kids or handing out flyers for a chicken joint, dressed as sexy poultry. “I’m so tired of all the possibilities,” Luciana moans, in an overwritten exchange with Olga (Natasha Romanova), a Russian migrant with whom she’s friendly. “The possibilities are why we’re here,” replies Olga, before asking Luciana to fill in for her at a lucrative gig that night. All that’s required, she assures her, is to turn up and look pretty at a cocktail party, wearing an LBD and heels.
Working in fruitful collaboration with cinematographer Greenberg, Asensio succeeds in creating an intimate, unstable world around Luciana, without any risk of the film becoming a vanity piece. However, it becomes harder to reconcile her desperation with her naivety as she ventures deeper into danger. Luciana, girl, have you never seen a movie?
She’s directed first to Chinatown, where a barking middleman tells her to ditch her bag and gives her a padlocked clutch purse before sending her to an industrial warehouse basement on the West Side Highway. There she finds herself caught in a nefarious playground where wealthy guests — both male and female — choose their human pawns to be led behind a closed door into the “game room.” Revealing any more would kill the suspense.
These climactic scenes are certainly tense and chilling, peeling back the city’s shiny surface to uncover its cold, hard heart. But they’re also a tad arch and inadvertently campy, with actress Caprice Benedetti (in a performance that could double as a Ryan Murphy audition) strutting around as an icy mistress of ceremonies, spouting ominous lines like, “If anything unfortunate happens, well, we make our own luck.”
Asensio’s grasp of the darker genre twists is less assured than her observation of the deadening daily grind, and her skill with the actors could use work. Some of the smaller roles give the impression of friends-and-family casting, and this has got to be the most innocuous-looking group ever assembled for a high-stakes, sexy dance of death. They look more like the HR team at an accounting firm.
While early on, the writer-director allows us to piece together seemingly casual details of Luciana’s existence — which could be that of any of these women — into a vivid, empathetic picture, the film ultimately veers into overstated obviousness. A beautiful final shot says plenty, without the need for a faded sign on a warehouse wall, ironically promising “Big Big Dreams.”
Still, there’s much to admire about Most Beautiful Island, with its highly original spin on the immigrant survival story and its compelling protagonist, whose fate remains raw, urgent and real even as she’s pulled into outré movie-ish weirdness. Despite some missteps, there are enough strengths to mark this as a promising debut.
Production companies: Glass Eye Pix, Palomo Films
Cast: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, David Little, Nicholas Tucci, Larry Fessenden, Caprice Benedetti
Director-screenwriter: Ana Asensio
Producer: Jenn Wexler, Chadd Harbold, Ana Asensio, Larry Fessenden, Noah Greenberg
Executive producer: Peter Phok, Jose Maria Garcia, Ahmet Bilgen, Selim Cevikel, Christopher Todd, Gill Holland
Director of photography: Noah Greenberg
Production designer: Almitra Corey
Costume designesr: Veronica Cardenas, Geanme Marin
Music: Jeffery Alan Jones
Editor: Francisco Bello
Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: The Film Sales Company
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