An entrancing, unconventional mermaid story from the director of “The Maid,” Sebastián Silva’s “Fistful of Dirt” has the distinction of being the first feature produced in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017. The devastation is evident from the opening shot, which follows 12-year-old Yei Yei (Julio Gaston) across the storm-ravaged beachfront, and informs the rest of the film, whose impoverished characters are barely scraping by without electricity and basic resources, although the story — a dark Brothers Grimm-like fairy tale anchored by a terrific child-actor performance, but not for kids per se — is one Silva had developed years before.
It’s a credit to Silva and co-writer Pedro Peirano that they were able to revive a pre-existing idea and adapt it to such an emotionally charged milieu, giving audiences an invaluable look at Maria’s apocalyptic impact (although one could argue that there’s something perverse about restaging storm damage in a location— the Spanish-speaking community of Loíza — that still desperately needs basic cleanup assistance). For the first half hour or so, Silva invites audiences to survey these surroundings while observing Yei Yei’s daily routine: The kid is a hard worker who keeps busy pulling a wooden wagon full of crab traps, feeding the chickens, and fetching food and gasoline, while his bedridden mother, Wanda (Dolores Pedro), wrestles with an unnamed illness, relying on a near-empty oxygen tank to breathe.
Though instantly likable in the context of the film, Yei Yei and Wanda are the kind of people who would be virtually invisible to tourists visiting Puerto Rico under better circumstances. They’re so poor that they don’t have a home of their own, relying instead on the limited generosity of a slothful fisherman named Alicio (played by local actor Modesto Lacén), an inherently untrustworthy goon in the vein of Dickens’ Artful Dodger, and his bossy mom (Hilda Juana Pizarro), another archetypal character who seems forever frustrated that neither her son nor Yei Yei is doing enough to earn his keep.
Enlisting “The Florida Project” DP Alexis Zabe for the outside-the-box project, Silva establishes a firm neorealist foundation — rendered more gorgeous than gritty by free-floating widescreen cinematography that vibrates with color and energy — before the mermaid’s appearance sends the movie into more fanciful magical realism territory. On his way to town one morning, Yei Yei hears a screeching sound coming from the lagoon. Following the noise, he discovers a strange aquatic creature down by the dock: a slippery, vaguely monkey-like scavenger with bulbous eyes, jagged teeth, and blotchy pink skin.
The frightening animal resembles Gollum more than the voluptuous sea nymphs that have dominated mermaid lore these past few decades, and yet, Yei Yei feels a connection, shrieking back in the same high-pitched “language” and returning multiple times to feed it with crabs he’s caught. These scenes of creepy-sweet communion between the boy and his peculiar find are nicely constructed, making it easy to look past the bargain-basement visual effects used to depict the animal — unconvincingly integrated with the live-action footage (even when glimpsed as little more than a blur in the far distance, since the shy animal is conveniently skittish around humans).
Back at his makeshift home, Yei Yei tells his mother what he has seen. Instead of disbelieving her son, Wanda encourages him to help this mer-person in distress, speculating that it must have been separated from its family by the storm. So far, apart from the novelty of the location, the modest narrative hasn’t strayed far from well-swum fable — a tiny bauble that echoes the fish-creature romance of last year’s “The Shape of Water,” or countless movies in which a child connects with some fanciful being that adults couldn’t help endangering (à la “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” or “Stranger Things”).
But Silva has other plans in mind (note: oblique spoilers ahead), taking what could have been a kids’ movie and steering it in a much darker direction. Once Alicio gets wind of Yei Yei’s discovery, the rascal suggests that they all could get rich if they capture and exploit the rare creature. The boy is naturally skeptical but falls for Alicio’s next ploy: to catch the mermaid and release it back into the ocean, where it belongs.
Audiences at the Telluride Film Festival (where the film surfaced by complete surprise, having been on hardly anyone’s radar) gasped in horror and disappointment with what comes next, as Silva reveals the statement he had intended to make with the film all along — one that might serve as allegory to the Puerto Rican situation if you forced it, but more simply seems to reflect the slightly perverse, deeply cynical worldview (previously seen in “Magic Magic” and “Nasty Baby”) that has kept the talented filmmaker from gaining the following he could. Though the final scene is ambiguous enough to be open to interpretation, it directly challenges the perceived humanism of what has come before. The way Silva sees it, there’s no happily ever after for Puerto Rico or the people he met there.