“Guava Island” (2019), the long-awaited, top-secret project schemed by Donald Glover, Rihanna, and “This is America” (2018) director Hiro Murai, finally premiered at Coachella last Friday. Promoted early on as something of a cherry topping Glover’s festival set as Childish Gambino, the movie was anticipated to be possibly comparable to an undertaking like Beyoncé’s harmonious “Lemonade” (2016), or maybe Prince’s irresistible “Purple Rain” (1984).
The short, though, is decidedly neither “Lemonade 2019” nor a piece that will instigate widespread discussion in the way Glover’s “This is America” did. It’s a visually stylish (though little else) anti-capitalist thriller whose greatest misdeed, perhaps, is that it doesn’t know what to do with co-star Rihanna, who is wasted in a worn-out girlfriend role.
In the movie, set on the titular fictional island, Glover plays Deni, a local radio personality. As the film opens, we learn that Deni, a brazen pot-stirrer, has secretly planned a music festival — a gathering that, here, is a major risk. Guava Island is dominated by Red Cargo (Nonso Anozie), a corrupt tycoon with a tight grip on the lives of the area’s citizens, who more or less depend on him to stay afloat. If the event is to go through, the consequences will be dire: Anyone responsible for messing up the productivity of Red’s businesses is bound to be messed up themselves.
Red lets his misgivings about the festival be known, and melodramatically so. At one point, he orders his men to kidnap Deni just so he can break the latter’s guitar in front of him. But, predictably, a hero of Deni’s resolve cannot be deterred.
The movie, which proves itself tragic in a romantic sort of way, is ultimately meant to be an old-fashioned stick-it-to-the-man brand of movie, all the while being stylistically reminiscent of features like the 1973 dark comedy “Touki-Bouki” and the crime drama “City of God” (2002) (which was name-checked as an inspiration).
But there’s an awkwardness to “Guava Island” that prevents it from being much more than an admirable but forgettable exercise. Its thematic ideas are so conspicuous from the start, and its quasi-musical sequences (all involving Glover reconfiguring already-released tracks for the screen) are so gawky, that little about the movie feels uninhibited. We can picture its makers discussing their noble narrative and stylistic intentions behind the scenes — something that otherwise wouldn’t be that bad a thing if we weren’t so aware of the strings tying the feature together. Putting Rihanna in a supporting role and not letting her do much besides narrate gauche prologue and epilogue sequences and emote from time to time might be considered analogous to sinning, too.
This is a movie that, with some rejiggering, might have been delectable: emphasize the music more (and let that music be newly released instead of chiefly recycled), allow Rihanna to belt, and alter the narrative to dodge heavy-handedness. “Guava Island” is worth a look because its visuals, which ogle scores of splendid Cuban locales, are pretty stunning to behold, and because a movie that goes on for less than an hour that stars Glover, Rihanna, and the always-wonderful Letitia Wright merits attention even if you know, going in, that the product might not be all that good. Still, it’s disappointing that a project with this one’s promise winds up being worthwhile only if you recommend it with some caveats.
The verdict: While admirable in spurts, “Guava Island” falls short of its astronomical potential.
Reach writer Blake Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @blakewpeterson
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