All you really need to know about Guava Island, the new 55-minute “tropical thriller” directed by Hiro Murai but introduced in the opening credits as “a Childish Gambino film,” is that for three blissful minutes or so Donald Glover sings “Summertime Magic” to Rihanna on a gorgeous and nearly empty beach, both of them bathed in absurdly majestic Maximum Golden Hour light. This moment is well worth the price of admission, however you—or the melancholy and slight and subversive and relentlessly winsome movie itself—might define the term.
Glover is accompanied at first only by lapping waves and fellow actors playing steel drum and guiro, the sparseness underscoring that “Summertime Magic,” first released by his long-running and vastly improved Childish Gambino alias in July 2018, is a very silly, almost childlike song. “You are my only one / Just dancing, havin’ fun,” he croons, and Rihanna scrunches up her face in a way that is both adorable and lethal. The full beat drops off-camera halfway through, a shocking swoon as though you’d just injected all 99 minutes of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before directly into your neck. Rihanna, skeptical but melting a bit as such a scene demands, stands up and playfully walks off, abruptly killing the music for a moment. But Glover chases after her, pulls more cartoon-paramour faces, and finally, of course, wins her over, culminating in a wide shot of them dancing together on a dock that just about made me pass out.
“Yeah, there we are,” he tells her, wrapping her up in his arms. “Look at that. You can’t be mad at that. You can’t be mad at that.” Hard agree.
Anyway, Guava Island is a rom-com about the ravages of capitalism. At less than an hour, it feels more like a too-short movie than a too-long TV episode, which is the vastly preferable option, even if it leaves its deceptively heavy themes underexplored, and its alluring characters (and actors) underserved.
The fictional Guava Island, as explained in the second of two whimsical animated intros, was a lush paradise designed as a respite after “the seven gods of the seven lands created the dueling truths: love and war,” said in a silly voiceover redeemed by the fact that the voice in question is Rihanna’s. She plays a young dreamer named Kofi with a very rom-com-esque secret; Glover plays her lovable-scamp boyfriend, Deni, a locally revered musician who runs afoul of Red Cargo, the locally feared and profit-obsessed island dictator. (Red Cargo is played by Nonso Anozie, whom you maybe remember from Game of Thrones even if there’s no way you’ll remember that his character’s name was Xaro Xhoan Daxos.)
Deni wants to throw a lively and playfully incendiary music festival for the whole island on Saturday night; Red Cargo, who needs everyone back toiling on his docks and in his factories Sunday morning, would very much prefer Deni didn’t, and will smash a guitar and/or dispatch an assassin to insure Deni doesn’t. Hence the thriller part of this tropical thriller, an abbreviated movie musical and a gentle tragedy in a few respects, chief among them the fact that Rihanna herself doesn’t sing a note.
Deni bounds around town charming the bejesus out of everyone, singing reworked Childish Gambino jams like “Feels Like Summer” and delivering two-ton pronouncements like “America is a concept: Anywhere, where in order to get rich, you have to make someone else richer, is America.” He drops that one on a bustling industrial dock just before launching into a remix of, yes, his internet- and Grammy-conquering 2018 smash “This Is America,” a pop-song-as-manifesto restaged here as a far sunnier version of Björk’s factory fantasia in 2000’s Dancer in the Dark.
That, unfortunately, is a clue as to Guava Island’s plotting, though thankfully not at all a clue as to its insidiously warm tone, which has the sumptuous uneasiness of Murai’s revelatory work on Atlanta. Shot in Cuba, the film makes the place look ungodly beautiful even as you’re gently chastised for perceiving it as a sunny and carefree vacation spot.
Guava Island’s Saturday release was tied to Childish Gambino’s headlining set at Coachella Friday night, which itself flaunted his trademark mix of exuberance and prickly gloom. (Sample stage banter: “All we really have is memories. All we are is the data we pass on to our kids, our friends, our families. There’s a good chance that at least one of y’all won’t see next week.”) The movie denounces the idea of Working For The Man even as it acknowledges that dropping a movie on Amazon Prime is itself a highest-possible-profile way of Working For The Man. (Not to sound like the guy in the well.) This is Glover’s M.O., as exemplified by his memorably grouchy 2018 New Yorker profile: make playful and idiosyncratic art that nips not-so-playfully at the bejeweled hands of the culture-biz overlords who paid for it.
The result here is gorgeous escapism that celebrates a palpable sense that there’s no escape. Deni does indeed throw his festival, and his small-scale but monumental performance of “Saturday” turns yet another awfully silly song into something revelatory and almost revolutionary. (“This festival is a celebration of life,” he announces. “I want everyone here to feel as free as you possibly can tonight.”) There’s no time for the screenplay (written by Donald’s brother Stephen Glover) to sketch out Deni or Kofi much beyond the fact that they’re beautiful, restless people played by beautiful, famous people, much like everyone else on screen. It is wonderful to see Letitia Wright again, even if she’s only around long enough to work a sewing machine and chat with Rihanna and throw her own impromptu factory dance party; as the bad guy, Anozie radiates charisma and menace even if there’s not much specificity driving it.
There are a few specifics, of course: Anozie the quasi-dictator takes his breakfast while surrounded by seven individually caged birds, and Deni the beautiful dreamer encounters an uncaged one at a pivotal moment—way-too-obvious metaphors that still work as a series of striking images. Spending any more time with these people would deepen the spell but also probably break it. Guava Island is a breezy fable with insurgent aspirations that are better off not being fully realized; likewise, for the discerning Amazon Prime subscriber, it gives you what you want, which is to be left wanting more.