THE STORY – Based in the immigrant enclave of Little Haiti in Miami, Xavier (a quietly potent Atibon Nazaire) is a middle-aged, working-class Haitian demolition worker who hopes to one day buy his beloved seamstress wife, Esperance (a radiant Sheila Anozier), a new and spacious suburban home. Meanwhile, their doted-on college-dropout son Junior (Chris Renois) struggles against his father’s rigid expectations by day while quietly pursuing a career as a stand-up comic by night.
THE CAST – Atibon Nazaire, Sheila Anozier & Chris Renois
THE TEAM – Monica Sorelle (Director/Writer) & Robert Colom (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
Gentrification is maybe the most insidious form of racism in this country. Under the guise of beautifying neighborhoods and bringing in big business, gentrifiers, in actuality, end up erasing entire communities and ways of life, slowly pushing people on the lower end of the income scale further and further out on the margins of society. Monica Sorelle’s feature debut “Mountains” is a naturalistic family drama wrapped tightly around a quiet indictment of the gentrification process, one so patient and subtle that you may not even realize what it’s doing until it’s too late, much like many people who live in gentrifying neighborhoods.
Xavier (Atibon Nazaire) is a demolition worker living in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. He works hard, endures his boss’s racist microaggressions, and saves money so that he can support his family. His wife, Esperance (Sheila Anozier), works out of their cramped but cozy home as a seamstress and dressmaker, and his son, Junior (Chris Renois), hides the fact that he works as a standup comic in the evenings. One day, while driving home, Xavier spots a beautiful white house for sale and decides that he wants to buy it.
Alongside this family’s story, Sorelle (working from a script she co-wrote with Robert Colom) immerses us in the community of Little Haiti, following the family members through their daily lives in order to paint a complete portrait of this little piece of the world. We meet Xavier’s co-workers and see how precarious their jobs are, we hear the gossip from the women for whom Esperance makes dresses, and we see how Junior and the younger generation are desperately trying to make their own way while staying true to their parents’ dreams for them. And then there is the story of the neighborhood’s encroaching gentrification, shown through little details like the numerous shuttered storefronts and the steadily increasing number of vaguely threatening River Realty signs advertising houses for sale by a brightly smiling white woman. Sorelle captures the spirit of community beautifully, making the audience feel like part of the family. The character dynamics are instantly endearing thanks to small familial touches like how Xavier looks at his wife and calls her “Queen,” how Esperance constantly pushes food on her men or the cliques that instantly form and separate from each other at a family gathering.
The filmmaking is attentive to all these little details and more, enveloping the audience and making us feel deeply connected to this place and these people before dropping the hammer in the third act. It is here when Sorelle’s message is fully revealed, revealing the full extent of the insidiousness of the systems governing these people’s lives. After spending so much time with this family and their neighbors, watching them love and fight and make up with each other, and seeing all the hard work it takes to keep their dreams alive, we want to see them succeed. The real world doesn’t work that way, though, and “Mountains” doesn’t flinch in its naturalistic portrayal of their lives. As much as we experience joy alongside them, so do we experience their pain alongside them, and oh, how it aches.
It aches all the more because of the strength of the performances. Anozier’s maternal warmth and earthy sexiness combine in a deeply soulful, relatable performance. Her playfulness and joy are vital to infusing the film with the heart of the Little Haiti community. Renois has the charisma of a born comedian, and Junior’s headstrong youth never feels naïve or reactionary but deeply felt and necessary for his survival, at least in his own mind. Nazaire does beautifully subtle work differentiating how Xavier is at work from how he is at home, letting us feel his anxieties even when those closest to him do not. As he slowly awakens to what is happening around him and his connection to it, something shifts within him, and we are suddenly aware of just how much Xavier has been holding back. With this irresistible central trio of performances and Sorelle’s assured control over the storytelling, “Mountains” (named after a Haitian proverb about the eternal struggles of life) will make a massive impact on all who see it. Its beauty is only heightened by its more impressionistic, ambiguous ending, which will send you back into the world with much joy, much pain, and much to think about.