As an inadvertent result of the world’s continued struggle against COVID-19, writer-director Martin Edralin’s Canadian family drama Islands evinces an unexpected form of empathy; with thousands upon thousands of single adult children around the globe forced to spend quarantine with their aging parents, this tale of a lonely, middle-aged man still living with his mother and father might hit close to home. While the premise seems ripe for all sorts of comedic shenanigans, Edralin takes a more subdued approach to the story of this Filipino family, who immigrated to Canada years ago and who have one son happily married with children, while the other is desperately shy but longs for romance. Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is reminded daily of his unenviable situation as the family’s disappointment by a mother who has all but given up on his prospects at finding happiness; meanwhile, at work, his colleagues desperately try to push him out of his comfort zone. Joshua even goes so far as to bargain with God, praying that He give him the strength to break out of his shell and find love. Unfortunately, that opportunity — when finally presented — turns out to come at a price: the death of Joshua’s mother. The funeral prompts the arrival of Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco), a cousin from Kuwait who likewise has a troubled relationship with her past. Marisol agrees to stay with Joshua and help him care for his ailing father. Romance ensues — and yes, for those wondering, Islands does address the whole “cousin aspect,” and in a mature fashion.
Edralin is not out for sensationalism; his film is, above all, a low-key character study showing how one individual can inspire change — no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential — within another. The structure of this story proves most successful to that end, as Joshua’s growth is contrasted with his own father’s, as he contends with the sudden loss of his wife and a physical and psychological breakdown. Through its engagement with feelings of love — both romantic and familial — as well as mortality, sexuality, and self-discovery, Islands ultimately emphasizes how connecting with other people is the driving force in our lives. That may sound weighty, but there’s a gentle effortlessness to Edralin’s approach, or at least in his writing: the cumulative power of Islands is revealed at the end, and shows Erdalin’s prowess as a storyteller. If only the same could be said for the filmmaking here, but sadly the visuals remain rather ugly: a combination of overlit scenes and shallow focus shots that make proceedings resemble a daytime soap opera, the mark of a crew unwilling (or unable) to elevate their digital cinematography above anything more than its most utilitarian form. The film’s cast of novice actors fare far better than its crew, with stand-out performances from Balagtas and Lotuaco, whose chemistry aids the natural development of their on-screen relationship. Sure, Islands doesn’t exactly have anything new to say about humanity, but it still manages to be compelling in its own low-key way.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.