Twenty years and 12 features down the line, it’s still hard to peg the directorial sensibility of Michael Polish, with or without the presence of brother Mark as frequent co-writer and actor. His output has been all over the place, from early Lynchian quirkfests to the very middle-of-the-road inspirational dramedy “The Astronaut Farmer,” not to mention mediocre genre exercises (“Amnesia,” “Hot Bot”), a B&W Parisian romance (“For Lovers Only”). a good movie about Jack Kerouac (“Big Sur”), and one about manure salesmen that’s about as good as that sounds (“The Smell of Success”). It remains a puzzle whether his thematic interests are more laudably diverse than they are simply arbitrary.
“Nona” is yet another departure, a primarily Spanish-language feature shot on location in Central America, touching on issues of illegal immigration and human trafficking. The narrative’s picaresque road-trip majority doesn’t properly set up a late turn towards seriousness, draining potential impact from its social-issue messaging. Still, this is one of Polish’s best films, an uneven but texturally interesting ramble though foreign cultural and geographic terrain, all examined with a fresh eye.
The attractive young woman we eventfully identify as Nona (Sulem Calderon) is a breezy, self-possessed Honduran who lives alone in a shantytown shack and “paints the dead” for a living — i.e. making corpses presentable at a local funeral home. But she’d rather be somewhere else, doing something else, perhaps painting on canvases like a real artist. Her father and brothers are dead, victims of the violence that seems as inescapable as poverty for many here. Nona would very much like to join her mother in the U.S., but that would require money neither of them have.
Thus there’s little holding her back when new acquaintance Hecho (Jesy McKinney), a skinny, long-haired hipster type in a bowler hat, offers a seemingly no-strings way out. He’s a Mexican just “passing through” in the wake of a failed romance, and proposes Nona “tag along” with him on the way north. He’ll get her across the U.S. border; she can pay him back later for that and any other expenses.
One might worry this is a deal too good to be true, but the journey itself seems to confirm Hecho’s good intentions. He’s clearly in no hurry, giving them both plenty of time to soak up local color as they cross from Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico via bus, on foot, even via sailboat for a bit. It’s a leisure trip sans sexual tension — their relationship remains one of platonic companionship no matter how romantic the setting or how close the sleeping quarters.
These characters are very loosely sketched, despite Polish’s occasional spasms of pretentious, overly garrulous dialogue. It doesn’t pay off to dissect them in hindsight, as they don’t really add up: Nona seems more blasé and sophisticated than is believable for her background, Hecho too evidently rudderless and guileless for some climactic revelations to be fully credible. Fortunately, the two actors have such relaxed chemistry — with each other and the camera — that we’re willing to surrender disbelief to a point. Newcomer Calderon has an intelligent assurance that demands we accept Nona on her own terms, while McKinney (who resembles Wyatt Russell) gets the simultaneously harmless and elusive quality of a privileged permanent backpacker type down pat.
Their passage is a flavorful one as shot by Polish and Aidan Haley (also editor), whose images have a vivid color palette and a keen eye for the evocative, non-touristic detail. The film only gets into trouble when the road abruptly darkens in the last 20 minutes or so, landing Nona in circumstances that are not at all as advertised. It’s an externally likely (and common) scenario, yet one that doesn’t really work in dramatic terms here, seeming too little, too late to lend “Nona” heft after its hour-plus of relatively carefree travelogue.
Nor does it help that producer and Polish spouse Kate Bosworth turns up as a government authority figure to give our heroine a long, obvious, explanatory speech about her victimization — in English, as if there wouldn’t be ample bilingual personnel dealing with Spanish-speaking detainees these days. She’s all too clearly lecturing the audience, not Nona, and the clumsiness of this content being jammed into the feature’s final minutes really weakens its case-pleading.
Still, “Nona” greatly improves if you view it not as a problematic, lopsided attempt to convey the personal danger and political urgency of current migration trends, but as a small, impressionistic two-character piece that veers earnestly if misguidedly into larger issues in its closing lap. The human-rights angle gives this movie its headline relevance. Yet as with prior Polish joints, the real focus here lies in the realms of offbeat tonal and aesthetic choices. Particularly valuable in that regard is Stuart Matthewman’s original score, which covers a range of moods in appealing, often trumpet-led style.