London Film Festival Review: Wah Do Dem

By Nick Deigman on 8 Oct 2009

Wah Do Dem

Wah Do Dem tells the tale of Max (Shaun Bones), a Brooklyn kid with messy hair, an American Apparel hoodie, and a pair of lime green Ray Bans permanently attached to his face. Max is looking forward to taking his girlfriend, Willow (a cameo by Norah Jones), on a Caribbean cruise that he won in a competition. But within the first minute of the film (the award for fastest inciting incident goes to…) Willow dumps him and Max is forced to go on the cruise alone. From the moment he embarks, he is forced into an exhaustive series of odd encounters with people he would probably never have met in any other situation… and this makes for an exciting and funny film.

To begin with, Max is the only person on the romantic cruise who is there alone, and he is also the only person under the age of 65! He sulks around the ship, dejected and lonely, until he eventually befriends a few members of the crew. This section of the film does admittedly begin to lull after a while. There are only so many comic situations you can come up with on a cruise ship full of old people, and Max spends most of his time staring at a TV screen or throwing up in his shower. It is when he arrives in Jamaica that the real fun begins…

Max immediately escapes from the tourists on his boat and befriends Bruno, a Rasta with an almost unintelligible Caribbean accent. They head to a ‘local’ beach, and Max finally seems to be having some fun with his new friends: he learns a few Jamaican phrases, smokes some weed, and goes for a solitary swim. When he returns, his bag has been stolen (along with his wallet and passport) and Bruno claims ignorance and runs away. Max eventually gets back to the ship that evening, just in time to see it pulling away from the harbour. Max is thus forced to embark on a long and fraught journey to the US Embassy in Kingston; a journey that takes him through dangerous townships, football-obsessed teenage gangs, an evening spent celebrating Obama’s election victory in a shack bar, and a terrifying ordeal with a knife-wielding youth.

It is impossible to imagine this film working without the performance of leading man, Shaun Bones; he even gets an “in collaboration with” credit after the names of the director/ writer team. His performance is a perfect balance of self-pity and self-realisation, resilience and defeatism. The brief programme synopsis says, “Bones’ enigmatic performance [makes] it difficult to know whether to laugh or despair”, and this is perfectly true. When the tension and drama are high, Bones performance rises to the task, but when the situation calls for a relaxed and naturalistic style of acting, he is right on point as well. The performance is filled with pathos and comic timing, but is also completely believable.

Bones’ performance mirrors the general feel of the film perfectly. At many points it is impossible to work out whether this is guerrilla-style documentary footage with non-actors, or a more designed and purposeful style of filmmaking. When Max plays football with a group of teenagers, and ends up spending the night with them celebrating Obama’s victory, it is so naturalistic that one can only assume Bones’ and one of the directors literally spent the night at that bar.

But underlying this guerrilla/ slacker aesthetic is a well-conceived narrative of self-realisation and resilience that follows an almost mythical path. Max is unbelievably unlucky (the only other person I can think of who was this chronically and tragically unlucky on film was Charlie Chaplin!) but the fateful and catastrophic events that befall him force him to dig deeper and deeper inside himself. He is, as with all the great myths, aided by a host of mentors, heralds, gatekeepers, and other Jungian archetypes that give him special powers and gifts to help him on his way.

In the end, Max’s journey results in a kind of browbeaten acceptance of the chaotic and often cruel world in which we live. But this acceptance is reached in such an odd, genuine, and uplifting way that you can’t help feeling buoyed by his journey as you leave the cinema with a smile on your face.

★★★★

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