Slight but winning and often funny, the scrappy Amerindie “Wah Do Dem” is a fish-out-of-water comedy driven by Sean “Bones” Sullivan’s offbeat performance as a Brooklyn hipster in rural Jamaica without money or a passport. Picturesque even in grungy, handheld DV, this Los Angeles Film Festival jury prizewinner should certainly click with mumblecore aficionados. Yet its appeal seems a good deal broader, thanks to Bones, a bouncy soundtrack and a straightforward narrative odyssey in which a privileged American male learns some much-needed humility. Indie distribs ought to take a gander.
At the start of their brisk, 76-minute feature, co-writers/directors Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner (the latter also shot the pic) introduce Bones’ Max as a skateboarding, soccer-playing twentysomething narcissist in lime-green Ray-Bans. The first full scene swiftly establishes our young hero’s bad luck, as Max’s g.f. (singer-actress Norah Jones) curtly bails on their plans to take an ocean cruise together.
Curiously failing to find a pal to accompany him on the nonrefundable trip, Max goes it alone, mixing humorously with shipboard oldsters and drinking himself sick on consecutive nights. A flurry of very short, mostly witty anecdotes of cruise-ship glee, boredom and alienation includes Max ordering room service, meeting a juggler, playing the slots, running on a treadmill and getting hit on, none too smoothly, by a male admirer.
Deposited on the Jamaican coast, ostensibly for a single day, Max falls in with a pair of spliff-smokers on the beach and goes for a quick dip — after which, dripping wet, he discovers his new friends gone, along with his clothes and other belongings, including his passport.
Thus, Max, shirtless, shoeless and penniless, becomes quickly dependent on the kindness of strangers, dropping his cool-dude swagger and eventually figuring he needs to find a ride to the U.S. embassy in Kingston.
As Max encounters a variety of compellingly loopy Jamaicans, several of whom refer to him as “white boy,” the film begins to reap the rewards of being set during the immediate run-up to last year’s U.S. presidential election. To a somewhat subtle and thoroughly plausible degree, the young foreigner’s fortunes improve alongside his country’s international reputation as a hope-filled new prez takes office. Chace and Fleischner don’t push their ideas (or their politics) on the viewer, instead merely observing minute changes in the chemistry between Max and those with the power to get him home.
En route to a quietly evocative final shot, the film generously balances humor and mild suspense, often against the backbeat of Jamaican pop. “Wah Do Dem” is short for a comic feature, but, packed with incident and detail, it doesn’t feel that way.