Directed by Martin Edralin.
Starring Rogelio Balagtas, Sheila Lotuaco, Esteban Comilang, Vangie Alcasid, Pablo Quiogue, Isys Szuky, and Maximus Szuky.
Joshua, a shy middle-aged Filipino immigrant, has lived in the comfort of his parents’ home his entire life. As their health declines he longs for a partner, terrified of being alone after they pass.
Martin Edralin’s feature debut Islands may seem built from familiar parts on the basis of its logline alone, but a unique cultural lens ensures this low-key drama has unassuming rewards aplenty for patient audiences.
Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is a shy Filipino immigrant living in America, and at 49 years of age still lives in modest comfort with his elderly mother Alma (Vangie Alcasid) and father Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang). Joshua, who according to his parents has never had a girlfriend, longs to be less shy, to start a family, and to make his parents proud – to let them see him become a “success” before they die. Sadly Joshua’s simple dreams are crushed when Alma dies suddenly and he quits his janitorial job to care for his fast-ailing father full-time.
With little knowledge of cookery or basic care practises, Joshua struggles to provide Reynaldo with what he needs, until his cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) enters his orbit and is hired as a live-in carer. As much as this lifts a massive weight off Joshua’s chest, it also rouses uneasy affection for Marisol – again, who is his cousin – which he struggles to reconcile.
The first time we see Joshua, he’s being woken from bleary-eyed slumber by his mother – typically a sight we might expect to see featuring someone 35-or-so years Joshua’s junior. But it’s not a moment played overtly for laughs, because conditioned though we are to expect middle-aged man-children to be the butt of a joke – typically in a Will Ferrell movie – Joshua is nevertheless an empathetic, fully-rendered human being rather than a punchline.
The tale of the developmentally arrested male getting his shit together may be as old as time itself, yet this treatment feels anything but. Restrained almost to a fault, in that some audiences will invariably balk at its aggressively stripped-back style, it also turns out quietly heartbreaking, pulling no punches even though there’s scarcely a raised voice or tear-stained breakdown in sight.
With a lesser actor in the lead role perhaps Islands wouldn’t convince quite so easily, but Balagtas – who, like most of the cast, gives his first ever feature performance here – is so wonderfully unguarded as Joshua, so believable as this cripplingly shy man almost pathologically incapable of manifesting his own happiness.
But Joshua’s trouble goes deeper when we consider the specificity of his status as a Filipino transplant; though trained as a dentist, he’s been unable to practise in the U.S. due to the necessity for expensive new training, placing a massive barrier in front of his greater prosperity.
Edralin’s spare filmmaking, defined often by dialogue-averse setups in which a static camera is simply pointed at the actor, makes Balagtas’ subtle, defeated facial expressions do much of the dramatic lifting, and he largely rises to the occasion. Edralin also shrewdly employs prayer as a recurring expository device, allowing Joshua to speak his feelings aloud for our benefit in an organic way.
Balagtas is also aided in many scenes by the efforts of others; as his declining father, Comilang delivers a jaw-droppingly vanity-free performance, and in his depiction of the debilitating nature of both old age and grief, is completely devastating. Watching him shamble around his home like a zombie in the middle of the night, calling out for his late wife, is almost too much. Lotuaco is meanwhile exceptional as the new light in Joshua’s life – a portrait of composed dignity whose own backstory is a deeply tortured one defined by abuse back home.
When it’s all said and done, Islands is an unmistakably bittersweet film, one which doesn’t afford cloying, sentimental solutions to Joshua’s heartache and existential fears. But life goes on no matter what you suffer through and what does or doesn’t happen, and we as the audience are left to ponder what truly becomes of this man.
Yet despite its seemingly bleak tenor, there are also occasional, well-placed splashes of sly hilarity; Joshua’s father briefly dresses up as an Elvis impersonator in a scene scored to choral music of all things, and when Joshua prepares for a self-pleasure session, he first ensures to cover the religious artefacts in his room, or better yet, turn them to face the wall.
This speaks to Edralin’s sharp observational skills, capturing achingly human moments in even the most seemingly mundane of activities. If many scenes seem matter-of-fact in their point-and-shoot composition, the framing is usually motivated enough to center Josh in locales alternately eerily still and bristling with life.
It’s understandable that the more languorous moments may test the patience of some audiences – particularly a shot of a microwave counting down from a minute in real time – but sometimes a slow, quiet, short-ish movie about people seeking basic personal tranquility is just what the doctor ordered. If you’re at all on the fence, perhaps save it for when you’ve sat through a glut of high-calorie blockbuster Content and need something a little more sedate on the comedown.
A slight but touching tale of loneliness and finding oneself in middle-age, buoyed by Rogelio Balagtas’s brilliantly understated performance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.