‘Play the Devil’: LAFF Review

Play the Devil still1-H 2016
Courtesy of Play the Devil Pictures
Awkward melodrama gives way to primal intensity.

A working-class teen is the object of a wealthy man’s obsessive attention in a drama set during Trinidad’s Carnival season.

A powerful sense of place deepens a simple melodrama in Play the Devil, the second narrative feature by Bahamian filmmaker Maria Govan (Rain). The story of an artistic teen’s seduction by an older man overcomes patches of staginess, gathering unexpected emotional urgency against its island vibe. In a provincial setting where homosexuality apparently is still stigmatized and closeted, the writer-director effectively uses the primal intensity of Carnival rituals to express a tragic dissonance.

With its perceptive glimpse of a specific Trinidadian culture and affecting lead performance, the feature can look forward to further fest invitations after its LA Film Festival bow, and could draw niche theatrical interest in select markets.

Set in the rural mountain village of Paramin, the film follows the push-pull between 18-year-old student Gregory White (an eloquent turn by English actor Petrice Jones) and businessman James Young (Gareth Jenkins). The glamorously wealthy James has dutifully carried on the lucrative family business and remains in a loveless marriage for the sake of his daughter — or that’s the story he tells himself. He makes a pointedly flirtatious backstage visit to Gregory after the latter’s appearance in a play, and from there his interest in the young man quickly escalates, until they spend an eventful weekend alone together in his beach house.

On track for a medical-school scholarship, Gregory has embraced a serious work ethic, instilled in him by the woman who raised him, his stern but supportive housekeeper grandmother (theater vet Penelope Spencer, commandingly understated). Their home life is quiet and serene despite the financial strains, but the calm is upended by the return of his shiftless father (Che Rodriguez), setting off a powder-keg fuse between the man and his older son, Fayne (a terrifically intense Nickolai Salcedo).

Jenkins’ portrayal of the seducer can be distracting in its lack of subtlety, even as Govan’s pared-down dialogue propels the story’s straightforward course. Though James encourages Gregory to face the truth of his identity, he does so selfishly, ignoring the young man’s request for distance and intrusively insinuating himself into Gregory’s family life.

As to Gregory’s ambivalence — his attraction to James and immediate rejection of their romantic encounter — Jones and Govan make clear that the teen’s conflicted feelings are not merely about repressed sexual desires. They also reflect his uncertainty about his divergence from small-town mores and family expectations, the hidden artistic sensibility that James can effortlessly exploit. He’s got a fancy camera to lend the boy, who secretly aspires to be a photographer while going along with his grandmother’s plan for him to study medicine.

Jones, the most experienced film actor in the cast despite his youth, expresses Gregory’s growing turmoil in every glance and gesture. The things he can’t say — whether in his school-taught formal English or the (subtitled) patois of home and the streets — strain his friendship with his closest friend, Devin, a kid with no book smarts who's on the verge of life-ruining trouble, and well played by Akil Nicholas. When Gregory tells his grandmother that his father will never be who she wants him to be, he’s also talking about himself.

And when he accepts that camera from James and gets busy snapping pictures, the film might have lapsed into a travelogue, but Govan and her creative collaborators never lose sight of the characters and their clashing desires. Production designer Shannon Alonzo nabs the divide between the simple, scrubbed church where Grandma worships and the modernist canvases decorating James’ spacious living room with irreverent images of Jesus.

Cinematographer James Wall captures Paramin’s beauty without fussiness — not just in picturesque settings like Avocat Waterfall or the “pan yard” social scene surrounding steel-drum bands, but in the everyday view from Gregory’s open front door. When the tension between the two main characters reaches a fever pitch during the Jab, a Carnival dance that turns participants into ferocious blue devils, the movie both indulges and transcends its awkward dramatics, giving way to something wordless. For some dancers, that soul-cleansing annual ritual will never again be the same.

Venue: LA Film Festival (World Fiction Competition)
Production: Play The Devil Pictures in association with Splice Studios, Irini Films, Creative TT and Film TT 

Cast: Petrice Jones, Gareth Jenkins, Akil Nicholas, Penelope Spencer, Nickolai Salcedo, Che Rodriguez
Director-screenwriter: Maria Govan
Producers: Maria Govan, Abigail Hadeed
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Hal Lehrman, Christopher Mortimer, Maria Stanley Marin
Director of photography: James Wall
Editor: Thomas A. Krueger
Production designer: Shannon Alonzo
Costume designer: Zidelle Daniel
Composer: Adam Walters
Casting: Karin Grainger, Timmia Hearn
Sales: M-appeal

Not rated, 84 minutes