SXSW 2017 – Most Beautiful Island (2017)

The world inhabited by Spanish émigré Luciana is not a comfortable one, though she’s crystal clear returning home is also not an option. After moving to New York to try and make something of her life, she’s left working a series of dead-end jobs that don’t offer enough money to make rent or pay the bills. As for medical treatment; well she has no hope short of half-begging, half-bullying her way in to see a doctor recommended by a friend.

Life is not all fun and games in Ana Asensio’s debut. She takes writing, directing and producing duties for the first time, as well as acting in the lead role in this claustrophobic psychological drama. A thin, almost gaunt looking woman, she tends to find work that sees her wearing very little. One job involves dressing like a cabaret chicken, handing out leaflets with her friend Olga (Natasha Romanova). She’ll be offered a hostessing job as well, only that won’t go down quite the way she expects.

Shot with murky immediacy, most of the film follows Luciana across the city. She’s been suffering nose bleeds and dizzy spells, and may be hallucinating as a result. The best the doctor who shouldn’t be treating her anyway can do is call them panic attacks. It’s no surprise she might be stressed when rent is due and she can’t even afford ice cream for the two brats she looks after in the afternoon (admittedly her babysitting skills leave a lot to be desired).

For a while the narrative is content to follow her around, watching while she thrashes about to avoid hitting rock bottom. Even in these moments there’s tension in the air, every decision bubbling up until it begins to feel like the last one she might make. That’s nothing compared to what’s coming when she takes the job thrust her way by Olga. It sounds too good to be true, and it really is.

Unbearable hell descends as she finds herself in some kind of industrial dungeon, lined up for God knows what. Women enter a room and some emerge while others disappear screaming. Asensio never rushes, leaving Luciana to linger in this place. It creates a stifling atmosphere as horror starts to pervade every shot.

Inevitably, the reveal can’t quite hit the levels reached before, and the two halves of the film don’t match up as smoothly as perhaps Asensio hoped. Genre horror clashes with a more naturalistic kitchen-sink style drama; both competent in isolation but not joined as seamlessly as might have been hoped.

When she walks off into the night past a sign proclaiming Big Dreams, it’s hard not to be impressed by this intriguing debut though. Most Beautiful Island is creepy, and intense, and makes sure to cut itself off before things get old.

Director: Ana Asensio
Writer: Ana Asensio
Stars: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, David Little
Runtime: 80 mins
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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