The outrage that human trafficking, essentially a modern day slave trade, exists in the 21st century has inspired scores of films, from the “Taken” movies and “Eastern Promises” to the more modest “Priceless,” “Trafficked” and “Trade.”
And that’s not even counting documentaries such as last month’s “Invisible Hands” (child labor is often carried out by enslaved children).
“Nona” takes a stab at taking a new tack, showing the enticement, the entrapment of a young Honduran woman lured to her doom by a good-looking stranger with a derby hat, a motorbike and a way of playing hard to get that is difficult to resist.
Michael Polish of the filmmaking Polish Brothers (“Northfork,” “The Smell of Success”) wrote and directed a film that plays like an homage to road picture romances, until his wife, the film’s producer, Kate Bosworth shows up as a cop trying to get the lovesick victim of this kidnapping to tell her story.
It makes for an oddly unsettling filmgoing experience — a director overly fond of Honduran, Mexican and Central American scenery, endless shots of “local color,” a good looking young couple traveling, carefree, by bus, foot, boat and even a sailing yacht — all just to sentence the title character to a bordertown brothel on the U.S. side of the river.
As a business model that seems a tad…unsustainable.
Screen newcomer Sulem Calderon impresses as the lead, a young woman who narrates her life story (in Spanish, with English subtitles). She had dreams of being a beautician. Instead, she takes what work she can get. In her corner of Honduras, that means “I paint the dead.”
She does funeral makeup for Funerales Tadeo, and the pay is enough to keep her in a tiny hovel in the city’s slums.
“Death is a big business here.”
Her father was gunned down. Her brother was stabbed to death. Her mother? She fled to Norte America.
The handsome Hecho (Jesy McKinney) flirts with her as she passes by. But just a little. There’s a dash about him, with his stubble and long, curly locks, motorbike and derby. He locks eyes with her just enough to show he’s interested, and lets her do the rest.
He wants to know if this all she wanted out of life.
“I am comfortable with the rules of survival. I am not afraid of death.”
He’s a wandering sort. Doesn’t she want to leave? Well, she would like to see her mother.
No specifics about how he can make this happen. No visible means of support. Maybe he’ll sell his motorbike.
But our heroine has no sooner taken one last piece of advice from her aunt — “The things we don’t like now will be the things we miss the most.” — than she’s off, hitting the road with this guy she barely knows.
They ride in buses,and on top of buses, cross rivers in tiny boats and bigger bodies of water by sail. They share stories of their lives. He was married, he says, the son of a dry cleaner, he says.
She grew up thinking “it was normal to see a murdered body on the street.”
It’s all terribly romantic, picturesque and adventurous right up to the moment she asks Hecho, point blank, “Have you done this before?”
“Nona” wouldn’t be much of a movie about human trafficking if we believed him, even though she does.
The fact that over two-thirds of the film is this rosy, romantic prologue suggests that Polish figured on ambushing the viewer the way Nona is ambushed by Hecho. That was never going to happen.
All he manages, with this seriously-delayed but always-expected revelation, is leave entirely too much ground to cover in a scant twenty or so final minutes. Nona is handed off, taken to her brutal new life with girls just like her, from all over, enslaved as prostitutes, their only “escape” the odd moment of singing along to a Spanish cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”
The madam who runs the place (Lilly Melgar) is a mercurial brute, the girls all terrified and resigned to their fates, too intimidated and English-deficient and certain that they’ll be deported to seek help from the gringo cops. Every detail of this death sentence is worth more screen time than Polish allows.
“Nona” never has much in the line of suspense, but that long tease of an opening act robs the film of the grim and gritty drama Polish skims over in the brothel passages. It doesn’t strip the story of its pathos. But the imbalance here is patience-testing and maddening, in addition to seeming teen girl fantasy romance unrealistic.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex-trade setting, profanity
Cast: Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Giancarlo Ruiz, and Kate Bosworth
Credits: Written and directed by Michael Polish. A North of Two release.
Running time: 1:30