Add Most Beautiful Island’s writer-director-producer-star Ana Asensio to every list of “stars to watch.”
Add Most Beautiful Island’s writer-director-producer-star Ana Asensio to every list of “stars to watch.” While her performance is strong, purposefully making an important point about her own good looks, her writing and direction are assured, stylish and notably tidy. In an era that sees many films meandering wildly before landing on a subtle message, Most Beautiful Island is an incisive, fast, gut-punch of a film, one that leaves no question as to its purpose.
The winner of the SXSW Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize (for Narrative Feature), Most Beautiful Island is something of a surprise considering it is Asensio’s first feature as writer, director and producer. Asensio uses that unknown element to her film’s advantage. Though it at first seems like it may be an expected, if not typical, undocumented immigration narrative, the surprises come in many forms. The most prevalent surprise doesn’t come from the plot, though it is twisty, even shocking, but rather from the style. Asensio and cinematographer Noah Greenberg give the film a kind of dirty, surreal beauty that feels very appropriate for the darker corners of New York, and Asensio uses the visuals and great pacing to infuse the film with a unique sense of dread.
Asensio plays Luciana, a beautiful undocumented immigrant trying to make it in New York. When a job requires her to dress in a small black dress and enter a mysterious basement, she agrees. While this would be a screen-yelling moment in your typical WASP-y suburban horror film, it doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary to Luciana or the audience as we all unfortunately know how much worse work can be for America’s undocumented workers. What happens in the basement at first seems to be Hostel in reverse, with European beauties asked to fulfill the fantasies of wealthy Americans, but the obviously low budget and Asensio’s smart writing take the story to different, though still dark, places.
Though the situation could easily have resembled exploitative, B-grade horror, Most Beautiful Island wisely keeps it real, and in a way, more chilling. While horror heroines are often damned by their own stupid choices, Luciana has no other way out. She cannot call the police, she likely cannot go home. But she’s also not as vulnerable as she initially appears, which accounts for some of the film’s more darkly pleasing moments. And those looking for more typical horror experience will perhaps be sated by the amount of creepy-crawlies on display.
While Asensio’s cinematic voice does feel fresh and sharp, she also demonstrates a familiarity with and affection for a European thriller tradition, though she is also comfortable with breaking the rules. Most Beautiful Island should serve as a reminder of the exciting results that take place when a female director is given a chance to shine. Like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook and Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation, Most Beautiful Island is a thriller with female sensibilities, and that is to its benefit.
That’s not to say that every element of Most Beautiful Island works. In particular, the supporting cast doesn’t match the standard set by Asensio, and though the limited budget probably contributed to some of the film’s more unexpected turns, it’s also awkwardly apparent at times. Still, what a debut. Male filmmakers have made first features of significantly less quality and have been handed the reigns to major franchises as a reward. Let’s hope Asensio is given that chance, because the talent she exhibits in Most Beautiful Island suggests that she’s got a lot more to offer.