Most Beautiful Island (2017)

The intensity of your reaction to the concluding minutes of the indie thriller Most Beautiful Island is likely to determine much of your overall opinion of the film. Most Beautiful Island is less of a slow burn art piece than it is a quiet character study that incrementally builds tension as it reaches for a last minute payoff. It’s a relatively short film, but it’s still one that requires patience, as the release of that tension relies heavily on last minute reveals & the mystery of what, exactly, awaits the audience there. Personally, I enjoyed the movie overall but found the mystery of what horrors await at the conclusion to be a little unsatisfying, if not an outright disappointment. There’s a level of intensity that underlines the everyday struggles of the film’s protagonist, an undocumented immigrant woman struggling to find even medial labor on the NYC job market, that I couldn’t quite connect with in the supposedly shocking conclusion to her story. I’d normally praise a movie for filtering these political themes of subjugation *& (lack of) cultural integration through a horror or a thriller premise, but in this case the genre film element waiting in the third act isn’t nearly as horrifying as the horrors of the real world they mirror.

Ana Asensia writes, directs, and stars in this debut thriller, which she introduces as being “mostly” based on true events. As an undocumented immigrant woman running from a recent familial trauma, her protagonist is incredibly vulnerable. Unable to find steady work because of her immigration status, she barely holds onto housing in a modest NYC apartment, fearing imminent homelessness despite holding several high stress, low pay jobs: babysitting, advertising fast food, participating in medical studies, etc. A friend in a similar economic rut offers an easy way out: a one-time gig modeling at a cocktail party, where she’ll make months’ wages over a single night, no sex work required. It’s too good to be true, of course, but the movie milks a lot of tension out what terrific exploitation could possibly be waiting for her at “The Party.” A labyrinth of cab rides, warehouses, and underground bunkers leads her to an art gallery space, where guests sip wine and consider which “models to select for their mysterious evil deeds. We wait, almost in real-time, for her to be selected, but for what? A human trafficking auction? An occultist ritual? A guillotine? The answer is unexpected, but also unsatisfying.

Even though I wasn’t nearly as invested in the answer to the mystery it posits as I was in the tension of its lead up, Most Beautiful Island still found surprising ways to chill my blood before it arrives at its dubious destination. Before it ramps up as a slice of life character study, the film opens searching for our protagonist in crowded NYC streets. From a distant, voyeuristic vantage point, the camera seeks out young women walking alone in anonymity, making our lead out to be just one vulnerable face among many (and setting up characters who will not reappear until The Party). Later, as she enjoys a bath in the apartment she cannot afford, a veritable plague of cockroaches spills from a hole in the plaster walls and the bugs frantically drown in her bath water. I swear there’s more tension in that opening act of voyeurism and the underwater HD roach photography than there is in the film’s disappointingly pedestrian conclusion, but since the majority of the runtime happens outside The Party it’s not necessarily a deal breaker. I’m not sure about what it says that the real life circumstances of an undocumented American immigrants are more horrifying than an extreme fictional metaphor for their exploitation, but Most Beautiful Island isn’t done any favors by starting off at its most intense, then tapering off.

-Brandon Ledet