Guava Island review — Donald Glover's film has more style than substance

A short film from the minds behind Atlanta and This is America, is caught between a musical and a morality tale, and gravely misuses Rihanna

Shot in a postcard-like 4x3 aspect ratio and with an earthy, desaturated grain that lends the sights and sounds of island life a certain timeless and elemental character, Guava Island, a 55-minute film dropped by Donald Glover and his close collaborator Hiro Murai over Coachella weekend, is a reliable feast for both the eyes and ears. That, unfortunately, is about all it is: there’s more parable than plot, more symbolism than story, and the Island Girl herself, Rihanna, is criminally underused as Kofi, the twinkly-eyed girlfriend of Glover’s Deni, a local radio singer whose attempts to throw an all-night music festival are thwarted by the island’s iron-fisted despot Red Cargo.

But one imagines Guava Island played better at the music festival in Indio (where Glover, performing as his musical alter-ego Childish Gambino, premiered the film on Thursday night) than it does on Amazon, which made the “tropical thriller” available for streaming shortly after. It’s the kind of film whose profusion of sensory pleasure is probably best experienced in a setting not unlike its own.

If the fictional Guava Island is burdened by the thug-like Red and his cabal of gun-toting enforcers, who police the island’s factory workers, allow them no days off and have a target at Deni’s back, Guava Island the film is burdened by the weight of expectation. That starts with Glover, one of the brightest artistic minds of his generation, who so consistently brings originality and vigor to whichever medium he chooses to conquer (and who, in the last two years, has racked up a Grammy for record of the year, an Emmy for direction and a Golden Globe for acting); there’s Murai, director of not only Childish Gambino’s music videos but also most episodes of Atlanta, a show whose strange fusion of Lynchian surrealism and dark humor has brought the half-hour comedy to new and singular heights; oh, and there’s Rihanna too, which is always a good idea.

The parts are there, but they don’t all fit into the puzzle that is Guava Island, which has neither enough songs to be called a music video film like Beyoncé’s Lemonade, nor enough plot and continuity to qualify as a feature in the mold of Purple Rain or City of God, which Glover has cited as inspiration. The result is something half-baked and probably best watched while baked, a project rich with ideas about art and consumption that remain curiously unleavened.

It begins on a promising note, with a five-minute animated sequence narrated by Kofi, who in a fairytale-like voiceover delivers the history of an island corrupted by the forces of capitalism and avarice. Deni, she says, the balcony-crooner trying to win her heart, dreams of writing a song that will “unite the people of the island, a song that would remind us of the magic Guava had”. It’s a tall task, which also more or less constitutes the film’s brittle plot, but one Glover could probably pull off.

The film, unsurprisingly, is most animated and alive in those sequences set to his music. This is America, which two months ago won Grammys for record and song of the year, is reworked as a playful appeal to a local factory cog who dreams of leaving the island and being his own boss. “This is America,” replies Deni, queueing up the film’s moral like a ball on a tee. “America is a concept: anywhere where in order to get rich you have to make someone else richer is America.”

Set against the rattling of machinery of a loading dock, and choreographed in much the same fashion as the original music video, the performance is a fine display of Glover’s boundless charisma and groove, but it also makes you wish Guava Island was simply the visual accompaniment to Childish Gambino’s last album rather than the somewhat flimsy film-music video hybrid it is. It also brings into sharp focus Rihanna’s thankless role; she neither sings nor dances in the film, though she does stare admiringly at Deni as he puts on a charming, beachside rendition of Gambino’s song Summertime Magic. Though Rihanna has beefed up her acting bona fides in the last few years, Guava Island isn’t nearly the showcase for her it could be.

It’s ultimately Glover’s show, perhaps even a kind of extended allegory for the suppression of his talents by an industry that’s found his work both too black and not black enough. “I feel like Jesus,” he said in a memorably candid New Yorker profile last year. “I do feel chosen. My struggle is to use my humanity to create a classic work, but I don’t know if humanity is worth it.” Guava Island makes his sense of martyrdom literal, too self-conscious, with a final scene that functions as a clarion call to art and creativity in the face of tyranny. Its message is noble, its vistas handsome and vibrant. But the film doesn’t quite meet the exceptionally high bar Glover has set for himself.

  • Guava Island is now available on Amazon Prime


Jake Nevins

The GuardianTramp

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