Remarkable sensitivity and exacting verisimilitude are just two of the many selling points for “Sand Dollars,” a psychologically nuanced portrait, set in the Dominican Republic, of an older American woman in an unequal lesbian relationship with a much younger local. A further plus is Geraldine Chaplin, finally given a serious, uncaricatured role worthy of her talents. Co-writing/helming duo Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas (“Jean Gentil”) have delivered their best film yet, and their perceptive, nonjudgmental handling of all parties is quickly being recognized by fests worldwide. Stateside and Euro arthouse distribs are likely to reap the benefits.
Sex tourism is the name of the game as 20-year-old Noeli (liquid-limbed newcomer Yanet Mojica) learns that a Frenchman (Bernard Bizel) she’s presumably been sleeping with is returning to Europe, and she plays things up, asking him for money. Instead, he gives her a chain, which she and her b.f., Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), immediately sell. The guy was likely one of many visitors whose generosity Noeli uses to her advantage on the beaches at Samana, but with Anne (Chaplin), there’s something different. That’s because Anne is hopelessly in love with her.
Anne’s backstory is only sketched in, but the discreet script provides all that’s needed, and Chaplin’s intelligent, vulnerable performance does the rest. A relatively well-off woman who’s part of the more intellectual jet set, she’s estranged from her son in France, though she speaks of returning to Paris. However, the draw of Noeli’s youth, her vivacity and her body keeps her in the Dominican Republic, in a kind of limbo that’s put her future in stasis. What does Noeli get out of it, after three years in this lopsided relationship? Anne’s been promising to get her a visa so the two can go to France together. There’s also the money Anne gives her, which goes to support the unemployed Yeremi (passed off as Noeli’s brother), who is all too happy to let “the old woman” provide the change in his pocket.
Noeli might not be able to verbalize it, but cash and the promise of a visa aren’t the only reasons she keeps going back to Anne, and part of the pic’s strength is its refusal to reduce these characters to stereotypes. There’s the sense of ease Noeli feels in the older woman’s company, the feeling of protection and playfulness, even when the latter occasionally descends into power games: Anne may have status and money, but Noeli has youth, and she’s not above toying with her benefactress to get what she wants.
While there’s a whiff here of Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Lost,” Guzman and Cardenas treat the theme very differently. Anne, given to moroseness and deeply unsatisfied with how life has turned out, full of endless possibilities yet little impetus, knows her obsession with Noeli is untenable – it’s as if she’s living an adapted version of Noel Coward’s song “Mad About the Boy,” with its lyrics: “Lord knows, I’m not a fool girl / I really shouldn’t care,” followed by “Will it ever cloy? / This odd diversity of misery and joy.”
Another element the filmmakers get absolutely right is the jet-set crowd, or at least the old-moneyed subset with just enough liquidity to allow them the luxury of a global, multilingual lifestyle. From the outside it may look glamorous, but for these folks, there’s something deeply unsatisfying about such a directionless existence. Anne passes her days in a large, empty hotel, occasionally meeting up with old friends like the similarly jaded Thomas (Hoyt Rogers), or meeting new ones like Goya (Maria Gabriella Bonetti), who could be a younger version of herself.
Chaplin’s performance is characterized by a lack of vanity and an almost magical combination of empathy and pathos. Anne knows she’s deluding herself, which means she’s completely aware of the impossibility of her obsession, and yet, as seen through Chaplin’s emotionally riveting, fearsomely needy eyes (never have they looked more like her father’s), her humanity is all too understandable. So, too, the source of her affection: Mojica’s easy grace is bewitching. Noeli also yearns for something — a true demonstration of Yeremi’s love — yet is unlikely to find satisfaction.
In the past, Guzman and Cardenas wrote and lensed their films together; for the first time, they’ve adapted their script from a novel, and Cardenas shares d.p. credit with Jaime Guerra. Perhaps that’s why “Sand Dollars” marks such a leap forward for the directors, in terms of its narrative suppleness and visuals. One flaw, however, is an overuse of strong background light, which at first seems a clever, perhaps generous way of semi-disguising Anne’s age, since the figure is often cast in shadow. At the start the concept works, but repetition causes it to lose any meaning.