Review: “Guava Island”

Review: “Guava Island”

Photo Credits: CAITLYN SAMPLEY / AGGIE

Childish Gambino film succeeds as creative project

The Thursday night before his highly-anticipated performance, Donald Glover, alias “Childish Gambino,” released “Guava Island” for attendees at Coachella, the famous site of Beyonce’s recent “Homecoming” documentary and Kanye’s Easter Sunday Service. The next day, Amazon released the film for an 18-hour period of free streaming for all viewers before moving it to Amazon Prime.

The 55-minute film is directed by Hiro Murai, the director and producer of Glover’s popular show “Atlanta” and his viral, Grammy award-winning music video for “This is America.” “Guava Island” is an additional collaboration between Murai and Glover and the film evokes a nostalgic vacation with its grainy yet detailed cinematography and a 4×3 aspect ratio.

The film begins with animation and a voice-over by Rihanna, who plays Glover’s long-time girlfriend. She explains the history of Guava Island and of the couple’s relationship. The origin story of this film echoes a similar origin introduction to animated films like “Moana” and “Coco,” but it then transitions into the real world of Guava Island with an opening shot of Rihanna and Glover waking up to begin their day. This transition between the romanticized child’s fairytale and the harsh reality of life for those living on Guava Island sets the film’s tone as a deeply symbolic and critical work.

Glover plays Deni, a musician organizing a music festival for the islanders, and Rihanna plays Kofi, a factory worker who supports Glover’s musical ambitions and wants him to succeed. Amazon categorizes the film as an “Island Thriller,” but many felt the film functions better as an extended music video rather than a plot-driven film (Pitchfork’s review of the film was titled “Guava Island is a Pretty Good Childish Gambino Film and a Pretty Bad Movie.”).

While “Pretty Bad Movie” is an ambitiously critical term, those expecting a film with a dynamic plot or action sequence might be disappointed in certain aspects of the film’s production. Those intending to watch the film because they enjoy Donald Glover’s various creative endeavors, however, will be fully satisfied by Glover’s music and dance scenes.

The movie features several of Childish Gambino’s more recent songs such as “This is America,” “Summertime Magic” and “Feels like Summer” as well as other songs from his 2016 album “Awaken, My Love!” The songs appear in new settings which differ from their music videos in short snippets within the film. The inclusion of these songs in an alternate setting only adds to Glover’s archive of visual and musical production while maintaining the same tone and emotion present in the original releases and music videos for the songs.

The film touches on many themes which are commonly reflected in his songs, especially when Glover explains to a fellow worker that “America is a concept: anywhere where, in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.”The film’s plot, specifically surrounding a musician’s attempt to throw a music festival for those on his island, eerily mimics Gambino’s Coachella performance. This attachment to reality further highlights the degree of Glover’s constant consideration for his art and enhances the viewing experience.

As a film that attaches itself to reality in Glover’s choice to play a musician and his casting of Rihanna as an idolized celebrity, some were disappointed in Rihanna’s minor role. Many critics felt that Rihanna’s role in the film was underserved — The New York Times’ Jason Bailey wrote, “Rihanna, rather depressingly, has little more to do than to be “the girl”: inspire Deni with her beauty, worry about his safety, and (the oldest and moldiest of tropes) try to decide when and how to tell him she’s pregnant. It’s a dispiriting waste of such a fiery, complicated performer.”

Despite the mostly mixed reviews that came from the film’s inability to be classified into any one category, it still succeeds as a creative project which surpasses a “tropical thriller” or a prolonged music video. It operates as a visually enticing project from a very thoughtful and highly intentional artist.

Written By: Rosie Schwarz — arts@theaggie.org