'Sand Dollars' Movie Review: Dominican Republic Oscar Contender is Superb Relationship Study
Dominican Republic cinema has hardly ever had exposure in the U.S. as its industry is very small and at one point it was nonexistent. This year the U.S. will get "Sand Dollars," the Academy Award selection from the country. The film is a subtle and remarkable relationship drama starring the legendary actress Geraldine Chaplin.
"Sand Dollars" tells the story of a young Dominican woman, Noeli, who becomes entangled with an older European woman, Anne, while trying to make ends meet and trying to maintain her relationship with her boyfriend, Menor.
Directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, the directors ask the viewer to observe and discover each character through their actions. At the beginning of the film it is unclear who Noeli is as she is seen dancing in a club and then later accepting presents from an older gentleman. Later she is seen with a young boy, Menor and later with an older woman, Anne. Nothing is ever explained. However, that is ultimately the great beauty of the film as its repetitive nature will bear out.
Noeli later repeatedly visits Anne, with whom she spends the days and asks for money. As the film continues it becomes even more apparent that Noeli is using Anne for money and to maintain her relationship with Menor. However, the directors never judge Noeli as she is constantly yearning for something and returning to Anne.
While Anne knows that she is being used, she repeatedly forgives and returns to Noeli. At one point in the film, she goes to her friend's house and she decides to leave the Dominican Republic. However, the moment she sees Noeli, there is an impulse to stay and continue in this relationship. It is almost as if Anne needs this woman who never returns her affection.
While the film clearly presents a lesbian drama, the directors sensitively observe the relationship and never bring out the sexuality in it. Instead it is about interactions from brief conversations, embracing while sitting in bed, Noeli teaching Anne to dance or swimming in a pool. This creates for a powerful and natural relationship.
The film is reliant on its cast as the directors always follow their characters closely in medium shots. Newcomer Yanet Mojica is a revelation as she brings naturalism to her character. Mojica brings this conflict to life through her expressive face. It is rare to see the character smile and when she does it brings out another side to Noeli. For example, at one point when she is dancing for Anne, Noeli is clearly having the time of her life. Interestingly however, Menor does not seem to give her that same happiness.
Geraldine Chaplin's Anne is a nostalgic woman who is clearly longing for company. At one point in the film when Noeli is no longer there, Chaplin's eyes embody sadness without ever tearing up. Chaplin beautifully portrays a lost soul without much dialogue through her physicality, whether it is as she is walking to a club, drinking or swimming a pool.
The cinematography by director Israel Cárdenas and Jaime Guerra brings out the beautiful terrain of Dominican Republic and showcases the different colors of the country, whether it is the beach or the small villages. The nightlife is also showcased and the music brings out the rich colors that the country has to offer.
"Sand Dollars" may not get nominated for the Oscar but it reflects the power of Latin American cinema through the subtleties of story. The film is a drama that will leave audiences yearning for more once it is over.