Guava Island (2019)

Tropical infusion in culturally-vibrant animation/live-action vintage-filtered cinematography, a charismatic lead in Gambino opposite the improving Rihanna, and house-y emotive soundtrack mark this impressive pseudo-short film. 8.4/10.

Guava Island is a musical film directed by Hiro Murai with a screenplay by Stephen Glover. It stars Donald Glover and Rihanna in the lead roles of Deni and Kofi, respectively, and was first exhibited at Coachella on April 11, 2019.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review: My word. Childish Gambino’s newest surprise project is an absolute work of art with wide-ranging multi-interpretive symbolism, cultural vibrancy, and a downright impressive use of limited resources to tell a story in 52 minutes. Helmed by director Hiro Murai – frequent collaborator with Glover back to their early Atlanta days – and featuring a screenplay by upcoming family-talent Stephen Glover and improving-actress Rihanna opposite Gambino clearly driving this master-short, the work just screams freshness and innovative expressiveness.

First, its mix of animation and live-action visuals. The opening animation sequence is downright *jaw-dropping*. Vibrancy and zest in colors match its cultural/ethnic beauty with unbelievable painted craftsmanship looking straight-out of a massive-budget Pixar film even indicative of or surpassing Moana’s opening. This leads to the rest of the film visually, which is equally as captivating; the film is shot with a sort-of vintage-filtered lens with painstakingly-crafted cinematographic shots and intense attention to detail that together make the film a sight to behold for eyes. It even finds time in its short length to feature multiple multi-interpretive symbolic shots like swords to the eye, the pimping/commercialization of the beautiful once-paradise Guava Island, iron fist ruling of Red, and Deni’s spiritual sight of a songbird staring back at him before that wild ending. Guava Island is one of the most deliberation-warranting and visually-beautiful films I’ve seen this year and even in recent memory, and deserves extreme praise for that coming from a mostly-unknown project and small indie studio instead of a WB or Disney, showing the achievement capabilities of creative people using mind over money.

Next, the storyline, pacing, cast, and soundtrack. Guava Island does something bold and innovative (as well as ballsy) choosing to keep itself to 52 minutes – too long for short films usually capped at 15-20 min max, but not quite feature length category either. But, somehow, it works, and is the perfect length for a nice, breezy tropical filmic adventure. The storyline is simple and flows nicely through the use of constancy in pacing – a guy who loves his homeland is trying to supply the hardworking people one day’s reprieve and escapist music festival doubling as a reminder of the once-beauty the island had and can hopefully return to. The simplicity of the concept and primordial art vs. hardship theme works brilliantly, juxtaposing arduous 9-5’s devoid of any signs of life or artistic expression opportunities freeing to the soul like film and music. The film is anchored by Glover cast-wise, who is a downright gem on screen as Deni with his signature charismatic charm & actor/musician/comedian combo you can sense in every shot, opposite Rihanna as Kofi who is mixed but at least improving as an actress clearly out of her comfort-zone/field, and Nonso Anozie who does a great job as the dictatorship-wielding Kingpin-like tyrannical Red. Finally, equally as grand overall is the film’s soundtrack effortlessly mixing everything from tropical house to tribal drums to african and spanish music to guitar ballads to even acapella in a cocktail of musical genres that simply works and fits with its cocktail of artistic flair and tonal mix. Beautiful.

Flaws in Guava Island include a Rihanna still shaky in acting ability like her inability to hold a normalized-accent with consistency bouncing around from an Island/Caribbean one at times to an extremely American one at others. Worse though, is the film’s at-times music advertisement-like feel. The film becomes musical-like at times indulging itself in Gambino’s songs to the point of coming across more like a music video than film at points. This interrupts the cinematic flow and is quite jarring, most apparent/forced when Didi and the dock workers are having a simple conversation about America that somehow bursts into a dance-choreographed hard hiphop-hitting rendition of Gambino’s ‘This Is America’ – that lasts the *whole* song.. (Good song but extremely surprising and off-putting cinematically while not fitting with the rest of the film).

Overall, Guava Island is a magical cinematic short with cultural vibrancy, tropically-infused soundtrack spanning many genres, multi-interpretive symbolism in its color-zesty and vintage-filtered cinematography cocktail amongst the most intriguing I’ve seen as of late, and anchored by great performances (~excluding Rihanna) in a simple, artistically-expressive product. The industry needs more of these surprise indie endeavors – they add a non-corporate freshness, tropical feel, and flair extremely welcomed between all the blockbusters and explosions we’re getting a bit too used to.

Overall Rating: 8.4/10