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TV Review: ‘Guava Island’

Rihanna and Donald Glover in Guava Island (Amazon Prime)

It’s starting to feel like summertime with Guava Island

When News broke in 2018 that Donald Glover, alternatively known by his musical pseudonym Childish Gambino, was working on a secret film project, to be helmed by his creative partner Hiro Murai (who directed Glover in some episodes of Atlanta as well as the groundbreaking “This Is America” music video, a watershed moment for contemporary music videography), and co-starring music icon Rihanna, none of us were entirely sure what the project was, other than that it went by the title Guava Island, and was being filmed in Cuba. Speculation pointed towards an ambitious music video (of which Glover is no stranger), or a visual album along the same lines as Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The theory that turned out to be correct was that Guava Island was a film, and while it runs at a mere 54-minutes, it is a wonderful little piece, a fully-realized film from a group of creative collaborators working together to create something entirely unique and quite astounding in its audacity. Glover has always seemed poised to be a unique voice in cinema – he has already broken new ground with his television work, and his music is some of the finest of the past decade. It only made sense that the next medium he would dominate is film, and with Guava Island, he has managed to finally enter into the cinematic world in his own way, and bringing along director Hiro Murai (who is also equally set to take over the entertainment industry with his own brilliant directorial vision), and a host of other collaborators, Glover has made something terrific with this film.

Set on the titular fictional island, Guava Island is based around Deni (Donald Glover) and his girlfriend Kofi (Rihanna), who have always lived on the island. Like everyone living there, they are under the employment of the sinister Red (Nonzo Anosie), a dictatorial businessman who essentially owns the island as part of his monopoly on local industry, putting all of its inhabitants to work in menial jobs designed to keep them submissive, passive and more than anything else, confined on the island, with no real possibility of escaping. Deni is also a very talented musician, and his music allows his listeners to hear of places beyond their island home, and to aspire to greater dreams than working as laborers or seamstresses for a malicious employer – his message is that anyone can do anything, as long as they have the drive to do so. To exemplify this point, Deni is planning a festival concert for the community – and when word gets out, he is promptly (and with a certain vicious politeness) asked by Red to cancel the festival, citing the absence of workers would negatively impact work (but the real reason is that morale is something that cannot be boosted, in case someone begins to rebel against the dreadful routine). Deni has to choose between money or art – and his choice is certainly the right one, albeit not one that will please certain people, but is sure to enthrall the crowd at large. 

Whether he is going by Donald Glover or Childish Gambino, we cannot deny this particular artist has an energy unlike anyone else working in entertainment today. Glover has a certain expressiveness that has not been seen for decades, not since the heyday of silent stars, where expression was the key to a great performance. The way Glover moves his body, contorts his face and carries himself is remarkably his own, and makes him a performer with a singular vision, and a certain ability to convey some underlying emotions in a way no one else could dare. His performance as Deni is one that is quintessentially his own, tailor-made for Glover and suited to his idiosyncrasies – and while it might be easy to dismiss his genial, upbeat demeanor as one we’ve seen countless times before, there’s a certain elegance to his performance here that sets it apart from the more easygoing Earn Marks on Atlanta, or the pedantic Troy Barnes in Community. Deni is a passive but passionate young man, with certain insecurities and anxieties that make him unique and drive his work. Glover’s frantic but measured performance is some of his most interesting work – and considering Guava Island was written by his brother, and directed by Murai, there wasn’t much to distract Glover from his performance here, and the result is exceptional, with Glover being given the space to explore his acting skill above anything else. Glover may not be one known mainly for his subtlety as an actor, and he may do some mugging on the level of Groucho Marx throughout the film, but ultimately it sees him venturing slightly out of his comfort zone, and shows that even though Glover may be a multi-talented creative artist, when it comes to just performing, he’s definitely at the top of his game. 

As much as Donald Glover demands respect and admiration, the real excitement for Guava Island came on behalf of the involvement of someone else – Rihanna, an artist has taken the music industry by storm over the past decade, defining herself as a true icon, and more than just a pop star. She has taken a few sporadic forays into acting, and while she was very good in projects like Ocean’s Eight, the material isn’t always there for her (including in some films that I think we’d all agree are best to go nameless here, as not to tarnish the goodwill Rihanna has started to amass as an actress), but she’s consistently hardworking and puts in the necessary effort, even when those around her don’t. Guava Island may not be centred around her, and she may be secondary to the story, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t quite remarkable given the nature of the role. It begins with endearing voice-over narration, set to a gorgeous animated sequence, where Rihanna’s Kofi regales the history of the island, before converging into her own personal history, and how she came to meet Deni. Throughout the film, she steals every scene she is in – her flawless grace and deity-like evidence elevates this film above its petty flaws, and whether it be in moments of subtle introspection or bold assertion, she continues to prove herself as someone capable of a lot more than previously thought. 

There’s just something so enthralling about Guava Island, and it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what. Perhaps it is the fact that it is a film that humbly celebrates the power of music – Deni’s livelihood is defined by the strumming of his guitar, and in his eyes, there is no better way to unite a divided, downbeaten community quite like bringing them together through music. Featuring reimaginings of some of Childish Gambino’s best recent songs, such as “This Is America” and “Summertime Magic”, Guava Island isn’t merely a vanity opportunity for Glover, but rather a musically-driven passion project that uses his music, which already manage to tell their own story, and by placing them in a new environment and giving them narrative context, they take on a new meaning, and become positively electrifying in the process. The restaging of “This Is America” in particular follows a similar path as the now-iconic music video, yet still has its own unique approach. Music is a powerful medium, and Guava Island does portray the raw impact it can have – and seeing these songs performed in the beautiful Cuban locations was extraordinary in itself and allowed some artistic liberty to be taken in terms of the storytelling structure. In essence, Guava Island is a lot of things, and it has its flaws – but being boring or unexciting is certainly not one of them. 

Perhaps another key to the success of Guava Island is that it is a vibrant, easy-going and utterly gorgeous film – from beginning to end, it pulsates with colour, and in both the gorgeous animated sequences that bookend the film, or in the live-action portion, where Murai’s directorial vision allows him to explore the Cuban surroundings with a very keen eye that allows for the creation of an entirely new fictional world within a well-known but underexplored nation. It is certainly a film more concerned with ruminating on themes rather than telling a straightforward story – at 54 minutes, it’s extremely brief, and while there is a central story at the core, it isn’t one that can be considered all that complex, with every narrative moment seeming to work towards the heartbreaking but powerful ending to the film, which hits harder than we’d expect. Christian Sprenger’s cinematography is impeccable, and the way the locations are captured with such gritty beauty is a highlight to this film that is already brimming with sheer ambition. Perhaps the presence of too much audacity could be this film’s downfall for some, because while it is certainly gorgeous (very few could deny not finding this film at least aesthetically pleasing), the shortcomings in the storytelling may be distracting. Not everyone wants a meditative reflection on music and capitalism and would much prefer a fully-realized story. It doesn’t make Guava Island a bad film at all, but rather one that can polarize audiences, some of which don’t find the brand of subversive postmodernism particularly endearing. The good news is that most people who like Donald Glover will most likely enjoy this, and it fits well within his wheelhouse, but just being experimental enough to not be predictable. 

Guava Island is an interesting experiment at the very least, and one that allows all involved the opportunity to branch into new territory. Hiro Murai is undeniably the person who benefits the most from this film – it is a great debut for him, as it allows him to showcase his unique style and his ability to work in something longform rather than episodic contributions. Donald Glover is having a lot of fun, and in bringing along Rihanna, he gives her the opportunity to convey her talents that extend beyond that of a singer, but also that of an actress able to play a complex role. Guava Island is not a film that really can be understood on its own terms – whether it be its unique release strategy, or the fact that no one is quite sure of what this film actually is (some still assert that its more of a long-form collection of music videos, others a visual album), or the duration, with Guava Island being too long to be a short film, too short to be a fully-formed feature film. Surprisingly, while we can all appreciate a film that gets to the point and is economical with its time, it is doubtful anyone would have begrudged an extra thirty minutes being added to this film, to allow it to explore some of its more underdeveloped plot threads, but perhaps at the expense of the emotional impact the ending has. Guava Island is a film that may not be adored by all, but it certainly can be widely-admired, and it has a particular charm that elevates it. Ultimately, Guava Island is a playful, entertaining piece, and one that proves that sometimes a film having fun is more than enough, and, that’s a point made abundantly clear with this delightful little film. 

About Matthew Jenner

Matthew Joseph Jenner is an avid part-time writer and full-time film obsessed millennial who has been following awards shows since he was in elementary school, waking up at ungodly hours of the morning to watch the live broadcast of the Academy Awards, never looking back since. If it has celebrities handing out shiny trophies, you know he's watching. Other film-related interests include cult cinema, independent filmmaking and reviving the careers of long-irrelevant actors, rebranding them as Beloved Veterans™. He has been writing for his review site Movies Unchained since 2012.

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