‘Islands’ shows us how life goes on, even in the middle of our lives
I’ve often heard that the mastery of editing a film is measured by how unnoticeable the edits are. If you get from one place to another–from one character to another, from the beginning to the end of a story without your immersion being interrupted– that’s masterful. I think that also applies to the skill of being delicate. In Islands, we arrive at a completely different world from where we disembarked through little wave-like pushes.
Rogelio Balagtas plays Joshua, a forty-nine year old second generation Filipino-Canadian who lives with his elderly parents. They speak Tagalog in the house and Joshua constantly gets harangued by his mother to settle down with a wife and have kids. Joshua’s meek demeanor complicates his social interactions both at home and at work. Beyond those spaces, Joshua doesn’t venture out of his comfort zone and can hardly take care of himself. But when his mother suddenly passes away, Joshua is forced to confront his insecurities and take care of the deteriorating family patriarch (Esteban Comilang) all on his own.
Joshua is a man in stasis. Unmoved by the familiar expectations around him, we see his eyes cast down on a life that barely had the environment to begin. We see Joshua tucked away in the geographies of his Filipino household–a passive American presence that never takes up too much space. Early on in the film, Joshua prays to God for him to not be so shy and to make his mother proud. Meanwhile, his brother Paolo is the foil of a well-adjusted immigrant with a white wife and mixed children. Joshua suffers under the scrutiny of comparison constantly. There is no laughter in this film. Just an overly patient air in a house rooted in mediocrity.
Yet life (or should I say death) finds a way. Joshua’s mother’s abrupt passing provides a space for a reckoning of his own life choices as his cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) enters the picture, offering support to not only his father, but to him as well. Marisol becomes a friend, confidant, and advocate for Joshua’s mild manners in a way that avoids patronization or infantilization. Marisol also becomes someone that Joshua can support as an equal when she shares her own traumatic work experience as an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker).
Slowly, we see Joshua take slow motions toward autonomy as he learns how to cook, how to care, and how to love without prejudice. Though this path hits snags as he searches his feelings for what Marisol means to him. A palpable fear of rejection overcasts the second act of the film that feels immobilizing. “Nobody’s ever loved me,” confesses Joshua in a heart-aching admission of how he has seen his life thus far. It begs us to take a step back and check on our own verses of self-love and how it felt before we had them, if we even dare to remember.
To describe Martin Edralin’s directorial debut as understated is just the tip of the muted iceberg that Islands’ narrative presents. While I can understand where this film feels more like braking than gassing to some, I push back and would ask for them to take a closer, gentler look as to just how slow we’re being driven–how Joshua is being driven. The cocooned man we begin the film with is moving by the end. He smiles as we see him grow into his life that was waiting for him to become a part of. He is dancing.
Score 5 / 5
Islands had its world premiere as part of the 2021 SXSW Festival.
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