Wah Do Dem

Wah Do Dem


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

As the slacker/geek hero seems to have completed his conquest of Hollywood, it seems only fair that he takes a holiday. And where better to hang out and, like, learn lessons about life and stuff, than Jamaica?

Those who’ve seen rather too many Michael Cera lookalikes shuffling across the screen encountering mild emotional peril while the director’s achingly hip record collection plays on the soundtrack might be advised to give this one a wide berth. But if you fancy an alternative to The Expendables, Chace and Fleischner’s film offers a road movie with a difference and a few variations on the familiar template.

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The initial omens are not good, however. Max (Sean Bones) is a twentysomething New Yorker whose life revolves around skating, soccer and strumming vaguely indie-ish laments on his guitar. All seems to be ticking along nicely and on top of everything he’s won a cruise trip as a raffle prize and is looking forward to taking his girlfriend (Norah Jones) to the Caribbean for a holiday – though from what isn’t made too clear, as he seems to sustain his lifestyle without needing anything as uncool as a job.

But she dumps him two days before the ship’s due to sail. Cue some handheld shots in a trendy bar while his mates analyse how dreadful she was really and why the relationship was doomed to failure followed by a montage where potential cruisemates take his phone calls in a succession of well-appointed lofts and explain that they can’t put their cutting-edge media careers on hold at such short notice – though he does have one blue-collar friend, just to reassure the audience that he’s a regular guy.

So far, so familiar and I must admit that at this stage the “so what?” level on my internal critic’s amp was edging up to 11. But once onboard ship things liven up a bit. The directors (one of whom actually won a cruise as a prize and bought more tickets for cast and crew to turn the trip into a film) turn an outsider’s bemused eye on the strange, hermetically sealed world of these floating holiday communities and conjure up some memorably strange and arresting images.

Perhaps deliberately, these scenes do become a little repetitive. We certainly share Max’s relief when the boat docks at a Jamaican tourist resort and he gets a chance to escape. He’s wide open to experience an alternative to the ship’s buttoned-down, anonymous atmosphere – so wide open, in fact, that he’s off his guard when a chance encounter sees him robbed and left stranded.

He misses the ship’s sailing and is forced to make his way across country to the US embassy in Kingston. Along the way, he has a series of encounters – comic, threatening and downright surreal – as he sees a Jamaica somewhat different from the sun, sand and hedonism of the tourist zone.

The film, in fact, casts Max as the object of curiosity to the locals, in a wry reversal of the traditional dynamic. Here it’s the affluent white tourist who needs to rely on the generosity of the residents. The story is set during the climax of the 2008 presidential campaign and the Jamaicans reaction to “their” candidate becoming president is a refreshing antidote to Max’s apolitical unconcern.

And while remaining aware of the poverty and violence of some aspects of Jamaican life, the film’s also a love letter to the island’s freewheeling, optimistic and ultimately generous spirit, contrasting vividly with the tourist’s paranoia and mistrust to which even the right-on Max occasionally succumbs (the title is patois for “what’s wrong with them”).

The camera captures a succession of memorable images – a multi-coloured ATM, green mountains lashed by tropical storms – while the reggae compilation from heaven plays in the background. And the directors resist the temptation to flag up a heavy-handed moral from it all. Stuff happens, they seem to suggest, and the best way to get over it is to go with the flow.

Not the most original or groundbreaking point, agreed. And there’s the occasional sense of the film being the New York film/music community giving Caribbean culture its official seal of approval. It definitely won’t be everyone’s can of Red Stripe. But Bones makes for an engaging, ultimately sympathetic lead and there are a host of quirky cameos from the likes of Carl Bradshaw (veteran of the all-time Jamaican classic The Harder They Come) and reggae legends The Congos. If you’re in the mood for an original riff on a familiar tune, you could do worse than hop on board.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2010
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Wah Do Dem packshot
A young American tourist is robbed in Jamaica and his attempts to reach the American Embassy in Kingston turn into a surreal odyssey.
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Director: Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner

Writer: Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner

Starring: Sean Bones, Norah Jones, Carl Bradshaw, The Congos

Year: 2009

Runtime: 76 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


London 2009

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