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In Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner's ultra-low-budget odyssey, mumblecore meets Jamaican patois.
In a scene near the beginning of Ben Chace and Sam Fleischer's Wah Do Dem, New York twentysomething Max (Sean Bones) accidentally drops his mobile phone down the toilet.
No incident could better encapsulate the spirit of the low-budget 'mumblecore' movement, whose characters must always struggle in their attempts to communicate - and as a college-age slacker musician with relationship troubles, Max fits the bill as the archetypal mumblecore hero. Soon, however, the film will travel to rather different horizons of geography and genre, and Max's normal problems with communication will be exacerbated by linguistic and cultural isolation in Jamaica.
When Ben Chace won a pair of tickets for a Caribbean cruise, the musician/filmmaker spotted an opportunity. So he invited along his lifelong friend Sam Fleischner, purchased a second pair of tickets for actor/musician Sean Bones and actor/sound recordist Kevin Bewersdorf, and arranged for producer Katina Hubbard to meet them in Jamaica. Three weeks later, much of Wah Do Dem (patois for "what's wrong with them?") was in the can. It is a strange blend of documentary naturalism and understated symbolism, on the one hand showcasing, travelogue-style, the best (and worst) of Jamaican life, and on the other tracing the steps of its protagonist's mythic odyssey.
Cocksure Max's confidence is about to take a mauling. His girlfriend Willow (Norah Jones) summarily dumps him two days before they are due to embark on a week-long cruise to the West Indies that he has won. When none of his friends proves friend enough to join him in Willow's place, Max heads off alone, and becomes further alienated and depressed by all the much older couples on the cruiser (it is, as he says, like "like bingo with your Grandma") - but nothing quite prepares him for the laid-back nightmare that awaits in Jamaica. There, he will lose all his money, his passport, his ride home, and even the shirt off his back - but he will also, in his Odyssean efforts to return to New York, make a return to essentials, and learn to embrace "more life".
Whether literally at sea or just a fish out of water, Max is gradually stripped of his material identity, and is even ferried across a river to a hallucinatory underworld where he acquires the spiritual nourishment and instruction he needs to return home - and in another pattern familiar from the ocean-and-island adventures of Ulysses, seemingly everyone encountered by Max embodies both hospitality and menace in equal measure. The man (Kevin Bewersdorf) who steps forward to speak to the lonely and depressed Max on the ship also makes unwelcome sexual advances.
The laid back local (Patrick Morrison) who offers to show Max "the real Jamaica" also leads, whether through carelessness or concealed malice, his guest to be robbed. Another local on a minibus who charms Max with his singing also shows off disturbing photos of his estranged wife bound with duct tape. And juvie (Mark Gibbs), a young cyclist who tries to mug Max at knifepoint will end up offering him safe escort through Kingston's mean streets. Here death and danger are never far away, but the kindness of strangers makes all the difference.
Much as Homer's Odyssey was originally an epic song, here music and singing play a similarly central role. Most of the actors - and many of their characters - are musicians, and their songs feature heavily on the eclectic soundtrack. Meanwhile Max's trip to the 'roots' of Jamaica will lead him, under the guidance of a drugged-up Rastafarian mystic played by legendary Jamaican actor Carl Bradshaw (The Harder They Come), to a haunting moonlit performance by 'roots' reggae collective The Congos. At the same time, snatches of news regularly seen on televisions in the background make it clear that Max's epic journey coincides with the election of Barack Obama to office, suggesting that the protagonist's coming of age is also that of a nation. That such a lot of ground is covered is not bad at all for a film of such minuscule budget and seemingly modest ambition.
In this slacker road movie, myth and politics are packaged as an engagingly chilled-out series of culture-clash misadventures.
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