“Beyond every mountain, there’s another mountain.” That Haitian proverb opens up Monica Sorelle’s feature directorial debut, Mountains. How you may interpret that proverb will depend on how you experience this film of a Haitian family in Miami confronting gentrification as they try to hold onto their values. Movies in the past, such as The Last Black Man In San Francisco and Little Men have addressed gentrification. But this one explores firsthand a city’s own changing dynamics as they start to creep in and how its protagonists try to come to terms with their changing reality, while hoping for a future of possibilities. Sorelle captures these lives with a sensitive and caring eye, and heightens the story with a proud sense of culture. Even those who live outside of the Haitian culture will easily connect with these authentically-explored characters, and will likely have more empathy for their struggle to maintain their sense of community and traditions in a city that is pushing them out of their homes.
The family patriarch Xavier (Atibon Nazaire) is a construction worker whose day job is demolishing houses to make way for luxury developments. Each day after work, he drives past a bright blue house he dreams of buying for his loving wife Esperance (Sheila Anozier) and their twenty-something American-born son Junior (Chris Renois) so that they may live more comfortably. Even though Esperance is content enough with the Little Haiti home they both share, she isn’t one for discouraging him or standing in the way of his own aspirations for their family’s future. Xavier gets the opportunity to put in overtime as gentrification starts to slowly make its way toward his neck of the woods. Sorelle and her co-writer Robert Colom wisely find a way to highlight the dilemma of working hard towards your dream, even though it may come at the cost of your community.
Sorelle also explores the individual lives of Xavier’s family, capturing different sides of Miami through Javier Labrador Deulofeu’s elegantly composed, sun-drenched cinematography. Esperance balances her job as a school crossing guard with her passion for dressmaking. Though she is slowly starting to become more and more aware of the people and businesses that are being pushed out of her neighborhood, something that Xavier is either not fully aware of or just isn’t willing to accept. Junior meanwhile is an aspiring stand-up comic who dropped out of college to pursue his dream, working as a valet to keep himself going. Renois himself is a real-life comedian, and his performance and experience help bring a sense of authenticity to his stand-up sets in the film. Despite doing bits on his Haitian background and upbringing, Junior is a respectful, dutiful, and tenderhearted son. Xavier however struggles to connect with him as he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the path he is taking. This may not fully address the generational trauma that stems from within most immigrant families, but it does question the balance between parents’ expectations and their children’s desire to find their own way through a sympathetic and nonjudgmental lens.
There are certain subplots that give the film more dimension. These include Xavier dealing with his boss’s microaggressive racism, his wealthier brother-in-law who flaunts his affluence, and Junior struggling to live a more independent life. Even during a family gathering, Xavier is asked if he would destroy a cousin’s house for his job. His refusal to answer puts even more emphasis on his denial of the link between his work to all that’s been happening around him. All these intersecting threads help pull the viewer into the film more, and provide more context to these characters’ motivations, burdens, and strifes. Sorelle, who worked in background casting for Moonlight, has plenty to say about both her city and the lives of her characters who are trying to get further ahead in life while holding onto their traditions.
Mountains is many things: a character study, a celebration of Haitian culture, and an exploration of the struggle for the American dream (to put it loosely). The subject and setting are as timely as ever as a recent New York Times article sheds light on the community of Little Haiti and how developers and investors are pushing out longtime residents to build new establishments. It is rare that we see a character who is both a victim of gentrification and a personification of the myth of the American Dream. Atibon Nazaire brings a lot to the table here with his quietly heartfelt and profound performance that might just tug on your heartstrings. Monica Sorelle has made a tender and poignant feature debut that straightforwardly sheds light on a grim reality in America. Mountains may not be entirely hopeful, but it’s nevertheless full of love, authenticity, and at times, joy.
– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)
2023 Tribeca Film Festival; Monica Sorelle; Mountains movie review