Most Beautiful Island
Compelling but uneven immigration story following a young woman whose dream life in New York slips into nightmare
A warped reflection and an almost-voyeuristic montage of attractive young women navigating New York’s busy streets give an appropriately unnerving feel to the first few minutes of Ana Asensio’s directorial debut Most Beautiful Island. They’re perhaps easy to forget with the onset of the central plot but the unease returns with full force by the end of this uneven but steely immigrant drama.
Luciana is an undocumented worker in the Big Apple and is played by the director herself. Loosely based on some first-hand experiences, the apparently innocuous narrative begins with various trials facing people in her position, trying to survive outside the system: from an awkward doctor’s appointment to an embarrassing job advertising a fast food restaurant in a chicken suit. She’s something of a beleaguered protagonist and some moments feel more contrived than others, particularly in Asensio’s performance. She’s far more compelling in quieter moments of reflection, where she’s inflected by a past trauma that prompted her flight to the US. Ansensio really comes into her own when the film turns dark, however, and suddenly the wayward tone of the opening half focuses, morphing into precise tension.
From the moment her friend Olga (Romanova) asks Luciana to take her place at a mysterious job who only employs women ‘like us’, you feel a tightening in the stomach; that Luciana’s desperation for work means she doesn’t flinch at the opportunity only adds to the strain. The nature of the ‘party’ she’s working is replete with distinct horror vibes, but this uses such tropes to subtle effect. The film remains an exploration of what it takes to survive but amplifies the danger via genre conventions. It’s a direct critique of the exploitation and degradation that many women suffer to keep their heads above water. In Luciana’s resolve, Asensio finds her groove both behind and in front of the camera. [Ben Nicholson]