When Wah Do Dem co-director Ben Chace won a free cruise to Jamaica, he decided to buy additional tickets for friends and crew and make a movie. It's the sort of ingenuity made possible in the modern era, in which cameras are affordable and anyone can make a movie on a whim. For the first 10 minutes of the film, however, I could not help but wonder if that clever idea was the only one anyone had for the movie, as the stereotypical mumblecore elements were presented with such clumsy execution that I could scarcely believe several friends recommended it to me.
Then, nearly everything changed. If the usual mumblecore film focuses on an group of hipsters as their isolation crumbles from the vague intrusion of real-world issues, Wah Do Dem breaks the mold by throwing its plastic-glasses-wearing protagonist into the larger world without a net, stranding him until he might see how myopic his perspective actually is.
The film's rocky start presents Max (Brooklyn musician Sean Bones) planning his free cruise to Jamaica, only for his girlfriend (Norah Jones, giving one awkward, perfunctory cameo) to casually dump him and walk away before anyone can raise questions about how transparently phony the scene is. Max's hipster friends are even worse, a collection of hipster assholes who dismiss whatever pain Max might be feeling to rag on the ex. They encourage him to go on the trip anyway, and so do we, as it means putting thousands of miles between Max and these cretinous voids.
Once Max boards the cruise ship, however, the film picks up. Chace and co-director Sam Fleischner marvelously capture the feeling of isolation Max feels as he walks the ship's hallways and decks alone, surrounded by the old retirees who populated these sorts of cruises. (Think a drier version of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which derived much of its comedy in the first act from the pointlessness of going to Hawaii alone.) As with all cruise liners, this ship is packed with garish, flashy entertainment, mixing the refined and the pedestrian. Patriotic T-shirt-wearing pensioners play nickel slots one one level while another section features faux-upper-crust music designed to make everyone feel like an aristocrat before they use their coupons at the buffet. Surrounded by the elderly and constantly accosted by a potentially predatory male admirer, Max spends most of the cruise hidden away in his cabin ordering room service.
Upon arriving in Jamaica, Max distances himself from the tourist pack, buys a Red Stripe from a local vendor and chats up a local who speaks in thick Patois. The man takes a liking to Max, and he and a young woman take the American to a beautiful beach, where they rob him. Left only with a pair of waterlogged shorts, Max cannot return home and must find a way to get to the American embassy in Kingston, an hours-long car ride away from the ship's port.
By actually taking the trip to Jamaica and forcing Max to deal with another culture without even his hipster glasses as a shield, Wah Do Dem serves as an auto-critique of mumblecore. The first shot of the movie shows Max playing soccer with some buddies, having fun but perhaps doing so partially because soccer isn't as popular in the U.S., which allows him to fit in. In Jamaica, soccer is huge, and the lazy horsing around Max did in Brooklyn doesn't cut it with even the friendliest of street players, who mock his lack of hustle and skills. He at least has the wherewithal to be ashamed of the fact that, hard up for clothes, he must accept the charitable contribution of two fat, ultra-tourist Americans who give him a souvenir store T-shirt with cheap Jamaican slogans on it.
He has extra reason to feel embarrassed, as Wah Do Dem takes special care to soak in the vibrant, even dangerous culture of Jamaica. Some cited the characters Max encounters as stereotypical, but there's a sociological curiosity in the film's direction. While some characters exist as clear fabrications, much of the movie was improvised with regular people. I expected Max to sneer at the jumbled patois dialect, but he never does. At first, he feels his ability to suss out the basic meaning of what's being said makes him closer to the natives and therefore cooler than the tourists, but after his humiliation he continues to ask locals for translations in a humbler manner. Visually, the film captures the luminescent, bounding anarchy of street life at its most appealing and terrifying, an overwhelming crush of conflicting styles, anachronisms and color palettes so bewildering one wonders how eve the residents can navigate their way through a community.
The impending election of Barack Obama forms a current flowing under the film, occasionally popping in news updates of the final days of the election. On the boat, Max looks up international opinion of Obama and finds that 97% of the Jamaican population supports Obama over McCain. This leads to a beautiful, spontaneous moment as the cameras capture the genuine, live results of the election as a crowd gathers in a bar, leading to an explosion of joy that radiates off the screen. Just as the film breaks mumblecore of its emotional isolationism, so too did the election of Obama announce, however briefly, the reemergence of America as a part of the world and not merely its own, shrouded empire. The locals, who'd been gently teasing Max the whole time, suddenly embrace him as a brother as they weep and dance jubilantly. Of course, since that election, Obama's presidency has come to resemble the cruise: initially a promise of good fortunes before melting into a cynical bore.
"Surprise, surprise, you don't fit in everywhere in the world," spits Max's quasi-stalker upon being rejected, failing to realize the last thing that would surprise Max was learning he didn't fit in somewhere. But by being completely removed from his tether, the young man finds how much he does share with others, a thought admirable communicated without simpering, feel-good liberalism (an even more impressive feat considering the indirect role Obama plays in all this). The film's final sequence is its most hilarious and its most poignant diffusing a comically tense situation through the equalization of Max and the character who confronts him. At last, the Brooklynite no longer seems a tourist but a credible member of this chaotic, beautiful community, and the thought that he will eventually return to what is technically his home feels like a loss.
Wah Do Dem is patois for "What's wrong with them?" and the unspoken answer to that question is that even America's liberals have walled themselves off from the outside world. Compared to the Jamaicans who wait with baited breath the whole film to hear of the election outcomes, Max probably didn't even vote, despite his desire for Barack to win. It's easy to read the Huffington Post, harder to place all your hopes on another country's leader so that conditions domestically can improve as a result. But I'm making this sound like a political film: Wah Do Dem is not a film about the end of the Bush administration. In a wry twist, grand political change is used as a metaphor for personal involvement, not vice versa. I nearly gave up on the film at the start, so thoroughly did I hate those opening scenes, but Wah Do Dem emerges as one of the most interesting and insightful off-mumblecore movies in some time, and also one of the most visually stimulating.