There’s a kind of cynicism so brazen that it plays off like sincerity, and it’s all the more gratifying that its playful side is in the spotlight. The same goes for the snarky and action-packed comedy “Chee$e,” Damian Marcano’s second feature, which screens Friday at this year’s edition of BAMcinemaFest, an essential annual showcase for independent films. Marcano (who directed episodes of “Winning Time”) returns to his native Trinidad and Tobago to film the picaresque of a young man with big plans and big problems. The film openly proclaims its intentions to please the crowd without hiding the conflicts that lurk below the surface.
Marcano moved to the United States when he was twelve, and “Chee$e” has an in-between mindset. Its subject is an outgoing but pensive young man who wants to leave the island; this dream is as urgent as it is vague, and it packs an ironic sting. The protagonist and narrator, Skimma (Akil Gerard Williams), is lonely, young, black, and a long-time orphan. He lives in a remote area called Turtle Village, where he is a diligent assistant to a Mr. Ottone, a white Italian tourist who stayed behind and became the area’s artisan cheesemaker. Early on, discussing life in Turtle Village, Skimma describes the local approach to affluent tourists: “We smile and play along, all in exchange for that almighty dollar. We suck the big fish in the hope that when it eats, we eat. American cultural tourists, that is, moviegoers and the film industry that serves them, are the big fish Marcano is targeting; “Chee$e” is a virtual travelogue of a movie, happily introducing foreign viewers to life on the island and in the village with a satirical look at the personalities and customs of the island, as well as the landscapes and places, packing a conflicting exposition of his sociopolitics. seizures.
With an almost documentary curiosity, Marcano revels in the details of the cheesemaker’s art – an art that Skimma has mastered, but the particular uses of that art by the apprentice are the driving force of the drama. Skimma warmly regards Ottone as a “father figure”; he also considers his boss, who has moved halfway around the world to follow his pleasure and rebuild his life, an example of what white people can do that he himself cannot. Skimma yearns for what he sees as their psychological freedom and independence, and he believes that only money can provide that. What triggers his dream at hand, the first step to leave the island, is a restored vintage car, turquoise and resplendent, which he adores. He recognizes, with an even more distant view of his inaccessibility, the inner freedom Rastafarians achieve through religious devotion, and he connects with a Rastaman named Osiris (Lou Lyons), whom he meets at night on the beach.
However, the connection is not spiritual: Skimma is suddenly inspired to harvest marijuana from Osiris’ bountiful harvest. Deploying his newly mastered artisan skills, he hides the herb in blocks of cheese which he makes at home with the help of his lifelong friend, Peter (Julio Prince), then sells. Additionally, heating and cooling works wonders and intensifies the mind-altering powers of the drug, creating a demand for Skimma’s “cheese”; this, in turn, sparks his desire to expand his business and fatten his bankroll. It also attracts the mistrust of the authorities.
Skimma’s personal life is turned upside down, which underpins her drive to make a quick buck. About a month after a single date with Skimma, a young woman named Rebecca (Yidah Leonard) tells him that she is pregnant with his child, although Skimma has no memory of having sex with her. (On the other hand, he remembers getting drunk on their date and imagines what’s next.) Because she’s the daughter of Miss Maria (Binta Ford), a grocery store owner and Local matriarch and stalwart of the church, Skimma is desperate to keep the pregnancy a secret. He harbors serious doubts about his desire to have a child – or rather his ability to raise a child properly – and this prospect evokes his own disastrous view of family life, which is rooted in the abandonment of him by his own father and the deaths of his mother and uncle who raised him.
Against the backdrop of grief and self-doubt, Marcano introduces an upsetting and upsetting spiritual dimension, rooted in the country’s religions and customs, centered on Osiris and a “priestess of black magic” named Hortencia (Ayanna Cézanne). Alongside the country’s distinctive cultural heritage, the film dramatizes – with frankness and energy – its enduring and internalized colonial politics and mores. Marcano reveals a long-standing patriarchal and misogynistic legacy of cavalier paternal irresponsibility. He points out that abortion is generally illegal; it shows harassing preachers calling the proceedings murder and holding the populace – in fact, many women – in thrall. The general air of rigid Christian moralism is reinforced, as Skimma observes, by the political absence of separation of church and state. Meanwhile, the country is portrayed as oppressed by a hostile and racist police force (even its black officers are anti-black) who are engaged in a senseless and destructive war on drugs, focusing on marijuana; there is no liberalization in sight, and the strict laws give rise to both exceptional cruelty and the authorities’ own absurd and self-destructive actions.
The stress and turmoil of Skimma’s ancient adventures are brought to the screen with a sense of style that’s as tender and loving as it is penetrating and insightful. Marcano makes his own cinematography and gives the impression of wielding the camera in the classically metaphorical manner of a pen, evoking his personal and immediate relationship to his subjects and settings. His tangy, offbeat visual compositions, rendered in a tangy, sun-washed Kodachrome palette, convey a sense of wonder and spontaneous excitement and imbue everyday conversations and activities with a distinctive cinematic identity. This narrative vigor is reinforced by audiovisual asides that evoke memories and daydreams through flashbacks, animations, interpolations and allusive montages. Although the film’s dialogue is in English, Marcano adds subtitles, due to the characters’ local accents and vocabulary, but he adds them in a playful way, integrating the on-screen text into his creative design both visually (animating the timing and formatting of subtitles) and textually (as when a character’s distinguished words are “translated” to reveal their vulgar implications).
The exuberance and scrutiny, craftsmanship and sincerity, practical artistry and incisive observation that are displayed in “Chee$e” are exemplary elements of independent cinema. The film is a very model of what BAMcinemaFest exists to present. And there’s yet another reason to cheer: a cliffhanger ending that opens the door to a sequel. ♦