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Islands review: An uncomfortably heart-wrenching tale about the need for connection [SXSW 2021]

Rogelio Balagtas as Joshua in Islands.
Rogelio Balagtas as Joshua in Islands. Pic credit: Circus Zero/Silent Tower/Diego Guijarro

As the old saying goes, “No man is an island.”

We as human beings are not meant to be isolated. But sometimes life, circumstances, personality traits, and even viruses can force us inward.

The film Islands which will compete at SXSW explores such themes through a lonely Filipino man named Joshua, who finds himself in a heartbreaking scenario of losing the few family members he has left. It’s a story that may be awkward, but given the conditions of the world, feels relevant in such a desperate time of longing for human connection.

Here are our full thoughts on Islands which will play virtually at SXSW.

Islands review

In the film, Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas) is a 50-year-old Filipino immigrant who lives with his parents in Canada. Joshua is very devoted to his mother and father but has no other friends outside the relationships he has inside his own family.

There is also a sense of sadness and longing to Joshua that is strongly communicated through Balagtas eyes. He is introverted and shy to an extreme fault. He rarely feels comfortable around anyone who is not of relation.

Then an unexpected tragedy leaves Joshua having to be a full-time caretaker for one of his parents. The incident leaves him in a vulnerable position of realizing his mother and father are not going to live forever and that he might be truly alone if such an event were to take place.

Realizing he cannot do everything on his own, Joshua invites his cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) – who is visiting from the Philippines – to assist in the areas of caretaking in which he has very little experience. Skills such as cooking are something he never attempted because he always depended on his parents.

As the two of them try and salvage this tragic family situation in this tiny house, a bond between Joshua and Marisol begins to form. While the friendship has some awkward moments, it’s extremely authentic when considering the nature of loneliness.

Sheila Lotuaco as Marisol in Islands.
Sheila Lotuaco as Marisol in Islands. Pic credit: Circus Zero/Silent Tower/Diego Guijarro

Islands will not be for everyone because it does something that most films are scared to attempt. Being a human for the majority of the time has a lot of weirdness when one thinks about it, and when we have to have someone care for us, these moments are just amplified. For some, loneliness can amplify these moments too.

Islands dives deep into Joshua’s insecurities as a person, as a provider, and as a man. His loneliness makes him long for connection and when he finally finds it, he is rightfully confused about how he feels because he is so desperately longing to be loved.

At the heart and soul of Islands is the friendship between Joshua and Marisol. Director and writer Martin Edralin beautifully communicates that sometimes an unexpected person can show us that we have value in the most unexpected of times and places.

The film mostly takes place within the confines of a small house with occasional scenes at a location for the elderly to use dancing routines for exercise. For a movie that stays within tight locations and tight shots for most of its runtime, it never gets tiresome. If anything, it adds to Joshua’s loneliness as we the viewer feel his sense of emotional captivity.

Joshua alone in an airport from Islands.
Joshua alone in an airport from Islands Pic credit: Circus Zero/Silent Tower/Diego Guijarro

There will undoubtedly be comparisons to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing. It’s hard not to link the parallels in such unprecedented times of separation. It’s unclear if Islands was made during the pandemic, but if the story is an emotional response to the moment, it would not be surprising.

Regardless, the film is handled with confidence and care. It’s transparent that Edralin had a love for this story and its characters. And while it does journey into some places that might make viewers uncomfortable, it’s earned through the storytelling and performances of the two leads.

Rogelio Balagtas and Sheila Lotuaco carry this film effortlessly and make it all look easy. It’s not easy as an actress or actor to emotionally jump into places of weakness, and Balagtas is about as emotionally naked as a performer can get in a movie.

Overall Thoughts

Islands may dive into some uncomfortable territory but it’s a better movie for doing so. Deep within the vulnerable and awkward nature of its main character is a touching story about the need for human connection.

Joshua is the man on the island seeking his own volleyball to have a friendship with. It’s basically Cast Away if Tom Hanks was an extremely lonely introvert.

Between the characters, the performances, and the writing, Islands is a heartbreaking and touching story of someone trying to break out of their shell. It’s absolutely worth seeing at SXSW.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure and read our coverage on other films like Yes Day and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Stay tuned for more SXSW 2021 coverage at Monsters & Critics.

John Dotson is a film and television reviewer and commentator from...read more

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