Marked by a vibrant evocation of Havana street life and excellent performances from three non-pro naturals, “Una noche” throws off a restless energy well attuned to its tale of impetuous Cuban teens preparing to make the dangerous ocean journey to Florida. Writer-director Lucy Mulloy’s sexy, pulsing debut feature has an undercurrent of ribald comedy that doesn’t entirely prepare the viewer for the harrowing turn it eventually takes, but it nonetheless amounts to a bracing snapshot of desperate youths putting their immigrant dreams into action. Pic will dock at more festivals en route to select ports of call offshore.
A fragmented voiceover by Havana teenager Lila (played by Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, with Aris Mejias providing narration) gives lyrical shape to a story that focuses primarily on the misadventures of her gentle-spirited twin brother, Elio (Javier Nunez Florian), and his more hot-headed friend Raul (Dariel Arrechaga). Smolderingly handsome and a bit too self-absorbed to notice that Elio’s feelings toward him are more than platonic, Raul plans to get out of Havana, and presses his friend to join him on the perilous 90-mile trip north.
The request takes on unexpected urgency when Raul, impulsively defending the honor of his prostitute mother (Maria Adelaida Mendez Bonet), makes the mistake of injuring a Western tourist who soon puts the police on the boy’s tail. Raul isn’t alone in his longing for something new; though Elio and Lila are somewhat better off, their parents are negligent, their father in particular a cheating ne’er-do-well. As close as the two siblings are, Elio tries to keep his plans a secret from Lila, as he has his own reasons for wanting to be alone with his buddy.
As Elio and Raul race around the city making last-minute preparations for their trip, performing the odd theft and staying one step ahead of the cops, Mulloy sustains a strong, present-tense urgency ably counterbalanced by a bawdy streak of humor. Raul, for his part, seems to have a weird knack for barreling into situations rife with sexual confusion, as evidenced by his own brief encounter with a hooker. Yet there’s also a pointedly sad quality to the film’s wry observations of this bustling cross-section of Cuban life, a sexually unbridled culture where debasement and exploitation are more or less the norm.
The characters, no less than their environs, fairly burst with life; of the three leads, all making their screen debuts, Arrechaga makes the boldest impression, though de la Rua de la Torre and Florian have a wonderfully real rapport and are persuasively matched as siblings. The tenderness with which these central relationships are observed lends a particularly cruel sting to the story’s abrupt outcome, which feels somewhat inadequately foreshadowed even as it remains entirely within the bounds of plausibility.
Lensing by Trevor Stuart Forrest and Shlomo Godder brings a palpable sizzle to the sun-drenched Havana settings, while the soundtrack is surprisingly restrained apart from diegetic musical elements. Low-budget production feels well handled in all aspects.