Sand Dollars, the opening night selection for the American Film Institute’s 2015 Latin American Film Festival (and recently selected as the Dominican Republic’s official entry for the Academy Awards), is a subtle and sensitive portrait of the many shades of human relationships, the bottomless complexities of love.
Set in Las Terrenas, a staggeringly beautiful region of the Dominican Republic currently transitioning from a fishing town into a ritzy tourist destination, Sand Dollars is less interested in the area’s postcard-perfect scenery than in the people who inhabit it. It would be easy to make Las Terrenas seem like paradise, but for Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) and Noeli (Yanet Mojica) life is much more complicated. Noeli, a dark-skinned Dominican girl of about twenty, visits Anne, a white American five decades her senior, at her palatial residence where they share tender and intimate moments — there is a wonderful scene of Anne and Noeli cycling each other’s legs — but when it’s time for Noeli to leave, she asks Anne for money under a clearly bogus pretense. We have already seen Noeli wheedle away an expensive gold chain from an older male lover. She proceeds to pawn it with the help of a young man named Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), who seems to be her boyfriend.
While Noeli at first appears to be something of a “con-artist” or “sugar baby” — and to some extent both of these terms are accurate — as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Noeli cares for Anne, though perhaps less than Anne cares for her. And she also cares for Yeremi. In its final third, Sand Dollars takes the shape of a classic love triangle, but one that is attuned to the the complexities of human relationships rather than the necessities of conventional plotting. In some sense, Noeli is using Anne, and Anne is using Noeli, but they also need each other. The same is true of Yeremi and Noeli.
It would have been easy enough to turn this material (which was very loosely adapted from a novel by Jean-Noel Pancrazi) into a simple melodrama with a scenic backdrop, something like a festival-friendly version of “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.” But co-directors Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán (who are also a couple) eschew scenic wide shots in favor of tight, even cramped, shots of their actor’s faces and bodies. Often a shot will be dominated by Chaplin’s naked back or Mojica’s dancing feet. A few scenes almost seem as if they were filmed with hidden cameras placed in a purse or across the street, capturing an unscripted moment. Even when the characters are speeding by on a motorbike, the frame is dominated by their faces, the scenery whizzing past as an indistinguishable blur, the camera so uncomfortably close to their faces we feel it might knock them over.
Mojica — a first-time actress discovered by the filmmakers in a danceclub — gives a fascinating performance. For much of the film, she doesn’t seem to be playing for the camera at all; she seems lost in her own head, breaking out into a bachata on a whim unconcerned about who is watching. It is only after a traumatic accident that Noeli seems to realize how much Anne and Yeremi mean to her. Chaplin, on the other hand, gives a wonderful performance underlined with a quietly desperate yearning, her eyes fixed on Noeli as if she’s afraid that if she looks away Noeli might disappear.
There are hints of colonialism in the relationship between Noeli and Anne and in the relations of the foreigners like Anne — who have discovered a “paradise” in a foreign land that is premised on the locals serving them and performing manual labor for their benefit — to Las Terrenas. Perhaps colonialism is even suggested in the title itself. In several scenes, Anne discusses Noeli in English or French with another European émigré, while Noeli stands silently within earshot. But Cárdenas and Guzmán suggest that European neo-colonialism is not simple exploitation; it is, in fact, no less complicated than any relationship among human beings, a complex back-and-forth between outsiders and natives, human beings and the land.
Cárdenas and Guzmán weave bachata music into the fabric of Sand Dollars, infusing the film with an air of exuberant melancholy. While the bachata, with its exhilarating braid of jubilant music and heartbroken lyrics, is instantly engaging, practically begging the listener to get up and dance, Sand Dollars is not always so immediately satisfying. Its emotional beats are subtle, its ending is ambiguous, and its style tends toward the oblique. Cárdenas and Guzmán reward the viewer who is not looking for the landscape or even the dialogue to tell the story. The essence of Sand Dollars is in the faces and bodies of its actresses. The story is in their eyes.