‘Islands’ Is So Tender, So True It’ll Touch Your Heart

Writer/director Martin Edralin’s “Islands” is a “small” film, devoid of spectacle and flash, that may go overlooked in a cinematic environment thriving off of “sure-thing” corporate products.

There’s a time for fun popcorn movies, but there’s also always time for a film like “Islands,” which feels like a welcome breath of air. It’s one of the best films of the year.

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Rogelio Balagtas stars as Joshua, a middle-aged man living in Canada with his parents and working as a janitor. He’s painfully introverted and keeps his loneliness to himself. Only during his evening prayers by himself is he able to express the sadness within.

When his father’s health takes a turn for the worse, Joshua gets help from the arrival of his cousin, Marisol, played by Shelia Lotuaco, who smiles easily, comes to live with him and takes care of them both. Marisol succeeds in breaking the routines of her relatives and reveals a vulnerable side similar to Joshua’s.

There are so many moments here that feel so brutally true and tender. I never questioned the plausibility of the screenplay, which feels lived in and uncannily frank. Edralin’s film is sweet, unforced and gentle.

Unlike most films, which overexplain plot and character motivation, “Islands” doesn’t tell us who these characters are, but shows us.

Joshua smokes in secret, prays in private and kindly but firmly turns down any offers from his co-workers to join them for lunch. The character and Balagtas’ performance always feels real. Ditto the luminous Lotuaco, who is such a welcome presence, I understood immediately why Joshua changes so much while sharing space with her.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Joshua’s dad, Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang, in an affecting turn) has an introductory scene I adored: while Reynaldo doesn’t perform anymore, he still dresses up as Elvis Presley for visiting relatives.

There are times when this will be too uncomfortably real for some, as some scenes offer a wrenching honesty that come as a surprise. While not a demonstratively stylish film, Edralin does cannily suggest the passing of time in one scene, where we watch a microwave do a one-minute cycle in real time.

I was unsure where “Islands” was going for a long while, because there’s no plot contrivances, big melodramatic moments, or formulaic touches. What this film generously offers is observant honesty. Joshua is child-like in some ways but has been wounded by life, a quality that Marisol recognizes in him and herself.

The concluding scenes are so monumental in what they depict, what the characters can and cannot say to one another and in the last moment, where we see how much Marisol’s company has impacted Joshua’s willingness to be open.

These last moments are crucial, as we’re seeing how Joshua is no longer the same person we meet initially, because of Marisol, and because the pain he endured and survived has made him braver.

The technical aspects are all professional and well executed, but the performances, screenplay and steady direction are the standouts. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film with characters I recognized from life, who felt like real people and not the creation of a writer.

“Islands” loves its characters and I found myself feeling that way, too. I won’t forget this one. It moved me deeply.

Five Stars

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