Movie Review: Guava Island
Guava Island is a hybrid musical, comedy, thriller about a fictional island with one major export and one employer. Deni has dreams of changing the island's philosophy while everyone else, Kofi, Deni's girlfriend, included, wishes they could just get enough to move somewhere else. The conflict comes when Deni challenges Red's rule of the island with an all night festival, which would result in a day without work. The film stars Donald Glover, Rihanna, Letitia Wright, and Nonso Anozie and is directed by Hiro Murai.
Let me start off by clarifying that while this film is short, it is not a "short film." The leaders of this area, the Sundance Film Festival and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, have slightly different ideas of what runtime constitutes a short. So, based on their two maximums, we can say, on average, a short is 45 minutes or less from opening to the end of the credits. Guava Island is 55 minutes long, so is a feature by that reckoning. Despite its length, it's a film that's very full.
A small part of me wishes the film could be longer, but a much larger part loves the length. In this time of bloated blockbusters and languishing dramas, it's nice to have a complete story told completely without excess. The opening narration over an animated sequence is perfection as it gives us all we need to know to dive into the story in a beautiful and fun way. They couldn't have done that live action as it would have taken too long and this way it sets up the final bits of dialogue with a nice bookend. This way the meat of the story can explore the themes of the animation without need for reiteration.
The plot is simple enough so that the overarching theme can be what it is, which is a great interpretation of capitalism. Capitalism is not the savior of poor people. It is the machine that grinds them up because it only finds value in their lives when they can contribute to the accumulation of wealth. An artist becomes a dangerous thing in this world as an artist creates for the joy and love of the process. Of course, that leads me to my one small gripe with the film.
Guava Island plays like the Childish Gambino production that it is. Childish Gambino is Donald Glover's music alter-ego and, if you haven't read the entertainment trades, you may not know that this film was shown during Glover's Coachella Festival set this weekend. At worst, the film is an extended music video for Childish Gambino songs. It was made to be paired with the stage persona and doesn't stand on its own in that way. One song in particular feels very shoehorned in despite the great sequence around it. I wish Guava Island could stand on its own, though. I really do love it and I wish this team could come up with something as original that has nothing to do with what came before. Though, as a film in its current form, Guava Island is a showcase for the immense talents of the filmmakers involved.
This creative team is also some of the talent behind the incredible TV show Atlanta. Hiro Murai's deft style finds us swirling in island life with bird's eye views, street chases, silly scenes, tense encounters, and gorgeous vistas. Stephen Glover's dark humor is a perfect match for this imperfect paradise of strongman politics and life loving personalities. His jokes are sharp and his tension is sharper. Donald Glover's great acting talent, timing, and lovely voice pull it all together. He's such a physical performer and it works to his advantage as his face expresses every emotion and his body contorts with joy and pain. This team is going to continue to do great things together and I truly can't wait to see if they can bring this level to their individual projects as well.
I love a great story. I especially love a great story where art can triumph over capitalism. Guava Island is a film for dreamers about dreamers and by dreamers that still has a realistic interpretation of how those that fear your differences will take you down in any way they can. If you're already an Amazon Prime subscriber, this is 55 min well spent. If you're not, that yearly charge is worth the enjoyment this film can bring, plus, you know, free shipping. See it.