In Ana Asensio’s Big Apple-set “Most Beautiful Island,” a cash-strapped but model-gorgeous undocumented immigrant agrees to attend a dangerous party for rich and ruthless New Yorkers. For think-the-worst Trump haters, this gritty low-budget drama could be seen as a dark spin on last year’s “Southside With You,” dramatizing an alternate history of how the Donald first met Melania. In truth, the inspiration behind Asensio’s high-suspense, dread-infused debut was a peculiar eye-candy assignment the Spanish-born Asensio endured herself, heightened to show the lengths to which outsiders will go to make it in America.
Awarded the top prize at the 2017 SXSW film festival, “Most Beautiful Island” is a modest first feature, spanning less than a day in the life of a tough yet brittle-looking woman named Luciana (Asensio), but it makes quite an impact on very limited means — enough to score its impressive writer-director-producer-star more film work, even if it’s barely seen upon eventual release. Though it’s set against a bright-lights, big-city backdrop, the movie offers an illicit cockroach’s-eye view of New York, in which nearly all the characters scurry about wary of being crushed by anyone with the power to enforce their arrest or deportation.
The story sprung from Asensio’s own early immigrant experiences, specifically the period when she overstayed her visa and found herself taking degrading jobs for cash. In this case, we see the clearly-stressed Luciana juggling a thankless nanny job with one of those rump-shaking street-corner gigs where she advertises a local fast-food joint in a skin-baring chicken costume. Burnt out and barely able to pay her bills, Luciana turns to her venomously escort-esque Russian friend Olga (Natasha Romanova) for advice, never suggesting that the too-good-to-be-true job — for which she’s supposed to report to a shady basement wearing nothing but a sexy black cocktail dress — Olga offers could have potentially fatal consequences.
Of course, we don’t know that either, although Asensio orchestrates it such that our Spidey senses start tingling long before Luciana’s, and by the time she finds herself in said basement, surrounded by half a dozen other tall, nervous-looking foreign beauties, it’s too late to change her mind. Shooting in the coarse handheld style on scrappy 16mm film (the sort that recalls classic John Cassavetes movies, or the more recent work of “Daddy Longlegs” directors Josh and Benny Safdie), DP Noah Greenberg never ventures far from Luciana’s side, resulting in the distinctly anxious impression of being trapped in her skin — which, as we’ll soon see, is no place we’d want to be, and all the more nerve-wracking given the director’s stripped-down neorealist approach.
The movie’s payoff is every bit as delicious as its build-up, during which Asensio allows our imagination to do its worst as the other girls are called away one by one to do whatever their sadistic hosts have in mind. The first emerges from a back room, visibly shaking, while the second lets out a piercing scream that merely exacerbates Luciana’s already tense state of mind. But what’s a woman in her position to do? When the authorities don’t even know she exists, what’s to stop these creeps from snuffing her out and dumping her body where it will never be found? And just how much resistance can a spindly-limbed stunner like herself possibly put up?
Plenty, as it turns out — and that’s where “Most Beautiful Island” earns whatever trust audiences have put in its unproven storyteller (assuming that you’ve never seen one of Asensio’s one-woman shows): The easy-to-underestimate star effectively conveys her character’s exasperation, but not what her actual skills or potential might be. In addition to being unusually resistant to a pest problem in her squalid New York apartment (her lack of reaction to a stomach-churning roach infestation speaks volumes about her iron-willed character), Luciana is also slyly resourceful in several early scenes, as when she scams the little black dress from a high-end Manhattan shop.
Still, there’s not much to suggest what Luciana might contribute to society, which is just the sort of judgment Asensio intends to upend when the moment is right — and that she does, demonstrating the same spirit of fearlessness in character that she did when translating this belief-straining, reality-based story into her big-screen debut. Stepping in to make Asensio’s self-made statement possible, indie horror legend Larry Fessenden not only produces, but appears as the toughest of the basement bouncers, and the ironically titled “Most Beautiful Island” proves a worthy addition to his Glass Eye Pix catalog, especially where the work of insect and spider wrangler Brian Kleinman is concerned. In the end, as with the Black Widow and many other species, Asensio’s female heroine is much deadlier than the male.