'Islands' Review: Rogelio Balagtas Shines in an Engrossing Drama [SXSW 2021]
Early in Martin Edralin’s stubbornly pensive and endearingly fragile directorial debut Islands, the painfully shy middle-aged loner Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) spends yet another day in his childhood home helping his parents with the laundry, when a sudden spill down the stairs leaves him and his father (Esteban Comilang) alone without a matron. Forced to reconcile with the irrevocable progress of time, the pair do their best to move forward in the wake of their loss, only to find themselves stuck in the muck and the mire of their codependent grief.
A big trend in 2021 SXSW genre releases has been dramas that contemplate the futility of existence, but forsake the traditional necessity of asking their protagonists to manifest an entire new reality in the name of pursuing their deepest passions. Travis Stevens’s Jakob’s Wife is a cautionary tale about men’s complacency in unhappy marriages; Wes Hurley’s Potato Dreams of America is an autobiographical dark comedy about a young homosexual man doing his best to rise above his oppressive, impoverished beginnings in the Soviet Union; Todd Stephens’s Swan Song centers around a dusty, retired hairdresser getting back in the saddle to style a late friend’s hair for her funeral; and Bradley Grant Smith’s Our Father asks two estranged sisters dealing with their dad’s death to look past the same tree-lined streets to try and witness the beauty in the banal.
A janitor at the local university, Islands follows Joshua as he quits his job after the death of his mother and uses what’s left of his savings to look after his father. His brother Paolo, a married man with children, suggests hiring a caretaker to lend a hand, noting that Joshua needs to look after himself, too. But the notion of breaking the same routine that has come to define his sheltered days is more terrifying than the thought of remaining shackled to his solitude. Time inches forward. Empty takeout boxes line the shelves. Longing prayer fills Joshua’s nights. TV static splinters the sunlight. Joshua’s father becomes less and less willing to leave the house, or even to move at all, for that matter. Rapid regression. Coddled catatonia. Suspended speech. Crippling agoraphobia. Walls closing in. Just when it seems that Joshua and his father might fossilize into their floral couch cushions, Sheila Lotuaco’s incendiary cousin Marisol steps foot in suburbia and promptly sets everything on fire.
Like a ship with the lights out at sea, Joshua drifts further and further away from anything resembling human connection. Isolation turns kindred spirits into lonely floating land masses, but the dissonance isn’t the only characterization embodying the movie’s magnum opus. This is a Filipino film, through and through, from the line dancing, to the chopping of a whole chicken with a meat cleaver. The zest of the culture represented on screen gives Islands its gravitas, and in its specificity, the feature breeds uplifting universality.
The construction of the script makes the ending arguably somewhat predictable, but it doesn’t diminish the impact of the final moments in any way. Balagtas plays the role of a man marooned in his own reclusive corner of the world with such heartbreaking authenticity that no matter how strange his actions may come across, you still find him plausible and appealing. His childlike confusion precedes his unconventional rituals. As he begins to break free from the worldview that has confined him, the journey from living underwater to approaching dry land becomes a quest in which you wish him success. Islands is a poignant and engrossing reminder that you’re never too old to start living. It’s never too late to develop a lust for life.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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