Every so often, watching an overly tidy, ultimately sentimental indie drama that pretends to be “real” but isn’t, I’ll peer through the movie and catch a glimpse of the better, more honest, less diagrammed drama it might have been. “Islands” gave me the opposite experience. It is indeed a good movie, and quite an honest one, yet its setup is so ripe for cut corners and heartwarming chintz that I was almost surprised to see it sidestep the diagram I was expecting. I bet other viewers will have the same reaction. Written and directed by Martin Edralin, “Islands” is a feel-good movie that, in an odd way, doesn’t try to make us feel too good. That’s why there’s a little bit of art to it.
The central character, Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), is a middle-aged Filipino-Canadian man who lives with his aging parents. Each day he gets up and has breakfast with them, heads off to his job as a janitor at the local university (he was a dentist back in the Philippines but never pulled the money together to get his dental degree in Canada), pops his lunch of chicken adobo into the microwave, and then, after cleaning up the big empty college buildings, he heads home. He’s as dutiful as a fourth grader going and coming from school. Does he go out at night? No, but he’s a serious Catholic who drops by church to light votive candles with his parents and accompanies them to their senior-citizen disco cha-cha class. He also spends an inordinate amount of time on the treadmill (a perfect metaphor; he’s running in place) and now and then turns his religious statues to the wall so that he can masturbate.
Joshua is pushing 50, but he’s essentially a sweet, shy kid who never grew up. His mother, the gently luminous and devoted Alma (Vangie Alcasid), takes care of his every need. He doesn’t date and has never had a girlfriend. He also never smiles. He’s handsome, with a thick head of dark hair, but he’s the ultimate wallflower, with a stoic gaze that’s hard to read — at times he looks wary and suspicious, at times a bit constipated, and at others he radiates a monk-like acceptance of his staid life of cozy clockwork dullness. Joshua’s father, the elderly Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang), was once an Elvis impersonator and still puts on the bejeweled white suit for Christmas. (On a side table in their living room, there’s a photograph of him from what must be 40 years ago, and he’s a sexy grinner.) You can’t imagine Joshua doing anything like that. But when his cousin, Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), comes to visit from Kuwait, she sparks something in him.
“Islands” is one of those films, like Percy Adlon’s “Sugarbaby” (1985), about a dead soul coming to life. Looking at Joshua, we know that something has to change — that fate needs to throw a monkey wrench his way. You could say that he suffers from social anxiety disorder, and a lesser film would probably have diagnosed him that way and set about solving the problem. But Joshua has a personality he can’t just change out of like a suit. That’s the film’s quietly authentic fascination: What does it look like, truly, when an unmolded lump of humanity wakes up? Rogelio Balagtas has never been an actor before, but his performance is exacting, and touching, in its casual repression. He shows you the prison this man is living in just because of who he is.
Inevitably, the monkey wrench arrives. Joshua and his mother are in the basement, doing laundry, when she walks upstairs — and out of our view, she slips and falls. A scene or two later, she has died. Our sympathy for Joshua gets kicked up a notch or two. Now he’s the one who has to take care of his father, and that’s quite a consuming ordeal, since Reynaldo, as we come to see, can’t even take a shower on his own. When he starts asking where Alma is, we realize he’s in a stage of Alzheimer’s, and likely has been for a while. Fortunately for Joshua, Marisol is a professional caretaker who is desperate not to return to Kuwait, where the conditions of her employment were terrible. She volunteers to move in for a bit and help take care of Reynaldo.
She’s a woman who has the pleasurable snap that Joshua lacks. Yet she’s nearly as earnest as he is; they relax together when she’s doing things like teaching him the proper way to chop an onion. (Considering his mother was a terrific cook, how sad is it that he never even learned that?) It’s around here that I began to envision the conventional heart-tugger that I imagined “Islands” was now going to turn out to be. Especially when Joshua and Marisol are sitting on the couch, and there’s an unmistakable tension in the air, and Joshua comes out of himself and confesses that he’s “falling” for her. Frankly, I expected the movie to now turn into “Marty” with chicken adobo and lumpia.
That wouldn’t necessarily have been the worst thing. Martin Edralin, whose debut feature this is, sets us up to expect just that kind of redemptive drama. I mean, how could we not want to see an innocent sad sack like Joshua find love? That’s a shorthand version of the magic of movies. “Islands” isn’t a downer; it lifts us to a higher place. Yet it does so not merely with empathy but with impressive subtlety. Joshua has been torn away from the protection of his parents. His nest has melted around him. Does he fall in love? Most definitely. But happily ever after? We can’t say. What we do know is that he moves the needle. You can see it in his smile.
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