There is nothing on the surface of “Live Cargo” that would suggest anything more than a cookie-cutter relationship drama: A young couple struggles with the trauma of their stillborn child, escaping to an exotic island to work through their problems; in the process, they’re swept up in island life, and given a second chance to appreciate their shared existence. Fortunately, the black-and-white debut of writer-director Logan Sandler is just sharp enough to complicate its clichés with strong performances and a mesmerizing tone that pushes the mopey proceedings into psychological thriller territory. Despite some clunkier moments, it’s a notable effort to avoid some familiar traps.
“Live Cargo” mainly follows Nadine (Dree Hemingway) and Lewis (Lakeith Stanfield) as they arrive at the unspecified Bahamian island that Nadine’s family visited in her youth. It’s there that she introduces Lewis to Roy (Robert Wisdom), the island’s mayor and stern patriarch, who played a key role in Nadine’s childhood.
For the most part, the pair roam the dreamy landscape attempting to rekindle their romance, as if reenacting the somber turmoil of Brangelina in “By the Sea,” but Sandler couches their conundrum in a broader set of problems that deepen an otherwise hackneyed scenario.
Little by little, the island’s internal problems come to light. Roy contends with the efforts of a local human trafficker named Doughboy (Leonard Earl Howze) and the homeless young American loner (Sam Dillon) he employs to do his evil bidding. A storm gathers — literally and figuratively — as the crime plot overlaps with the couple’s late-night excursions, while the lavish setting strikes a notable contrast with chaos taking place just off-screen. Radios report on Haitian refugees dying in the stormy waves, and while Roy casts a disapproving eye on Doughboy’s role in those developments, it’s unclear who has the upper hand in this seemingly lawless land.
All of this takes place against the backdrop of gorgeous scenery captured in a rich greyscale that strips the scenario of its exotic context in more ways that one. With a biracial couple at its center and the only other white character being a young ruffian at the mercy of the town, Sandler’s story can hardly be accused of fetishizing its setting; instead, the movie’s biggest failing is its humorless reliance on ponderous dialogue and a general soapy quality that hangs over the proceedings, both of which are at odds with sophisticated environment.
Fortunately, the material provides a fine showcase for its two young leads: Stanfield, now best known for his supporting parts on “Atlanta” and “Get Out” (though you really have to see him rap in “Short Term 12” to get his appeal), does a fine job as a shy recluse simmering with frustration. Hemingway, in her first substantial lead role since playing a porn actress in “Starlet,” gives her character a fragility that imbues the couple’s future with continuing unpredictability. It’s just believable enough to excuse the all-too-simple climax, when virtually every story fragment neatly settles into an easy resolution.
Still, “Live Cargo” at least transports a familiar set of challenges into a complex arena, and even manages to endow its intimate drama with greater purpose. Like a narrative version of the Oscar-nominated “Fire at Sea,” Sandler’s story explores the contrast between the pedestrian conflict shared by two people and the far rockier challenges of survival facing less privileged souls. Nadine and Lewis may think their world sucks, but they have no idea of the real horrors at sea, and that ultimately sets the stage for a wakeup call. It’s a basic point, but in the context of a small-scale drama that risks drowning in cliché, an essential one.
“Live Cargo” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 31.