There’s a youthful energy running through “Una Noche” that threatens to overwhelm, from its sun-kissed first image to its final moments on the sands of the beach. Alive and vibrant, Lucy Mulloy’s often bawdy first feature is narrated by Lila, a blossoming teenage girl confused by her sexuality, alienated from the local girls. The language is Spanish, but teenage cruelty is universal, as her peers mock her slight body hair and tomboyish interest in taekwondo.
Lila shares a deep bond with her twin brother Elio, though he has grown distant. She watches as he slaves away in the kitchen of a Cuban hot spot, serving over-privileged tourists as they eat under the safety of vigilant guards. Elio and Lila’s family can starve, and no one would bat an eyelash. But when Elio’s best friend Raul is approached by a young British girl for directions, men with guns converge to ensure he doesn’t even breathe on her improperly.
Raul works in the same kitchen Elio, forming a bond that in some ways has replaced the closeness of the two siblings. While they count the hours, Lila is stuck at home, watching her father and mother argue, only venturing outside to vicariously pursue the secrets of others. A spark lights inside her when she sees her father leave their home to seduce a local woman. She watches them embrace and is confused. She sees them kiss and is repulsed. She remains, as the two curse each other in passion and he mounts his mistress against the wall.
Elio is broad-chested and carries a wide, contagious smile, a beautiful boy with open features and gentle hands who vows to stay out of trouble. Raul is his fractured mirror image, dark, brooding, sexy and youthful like the “edgy one” in a boy band, quick to throw a punch or toss insults anyone’s way. Or, ahem, to “spit game” as he immediately corners Lila like a tiger, immediately intrigued by this take-no-shit tomboy. Raul’s sexuality fascinates: clearly uncomfortable around homosexuals, and deeply attracted to women, he nonetheless seems to figure out far too late that a prostitute he attempts to seduce is transgendered. In a quieter moment, one of few, he speaks admiringly of Lila’s light arm hair.
Lila soon learns that Elio and Raul have made big plans. Together, they’ve been assembling the supplies to build a raft, long ago reasoning that a ninety-mile distance wasn’t impossible to reach. Raul, caring for his dying mother, believes he has the opportunity to find the father who long abandoned him. But a gruesome freak accident sends a tourist to the hospital, sending Raul fleeing. The timetable accelerates considerably, and at the mid-point of “Una Noche,” it kickstarts into something of a high-octane, no-budget heist movie. Raul and Elio evade the police as they procure a laundry list of necessary items, now in danger for Raul’s innocent mistake as well as their theft of a considerable amount of supplies.
Despite the bleakness at the center of “Una Noche,” its focus stays squarely on Raul and Elio. Despondent over his mother’s illness, Raul spends a large portion of the picture at the bottom of a bottle, and while some moments of the picture carry strong momentum, there’s far too much time of Raul spent sullen, essentially absent from the narrative. A crisis of conscience emerges from leaving his mother behind, though this point is belabored. “Una Noche” doesn’t ever really drag, though there’s so much packed into that first forty five minutes or so that any rote contemplation would feel like a massive shift in tone, if only to relay information we can already understand. Raul’s drunken detour does give a chance for Elio to take him to a local witch doctor, in a moment that feels like authentic local color than a quick punch line.
There’s been a bit of a scandal surrounding the lead actors of “Una Noche,” as they arrived from Cuba for the Tribeca Film Festival but opted to stay in Miami, avoiding the trip back. While the film may be the text, it’s impossible to not watch “Una Noche” and feel those pangs of bittersweet emotions, knowing that these actors have found the happiness of which their characters fought. It’s a tender coda to a film that is at times funny, heartfelt, naughty and nice, a tale of three youngsters who deserve better than the forces that limit them, the corruption that eats away at their powerfully-beating hearts. [A-]