The set up is as old as Hemingway’s “To Have and Have.”
A tropical island fisherman, down on his luck, turns to a more desperate use for his boat.
“Cargo” is a human trafficking melodrama set in the Bahamas, with Haitian refugees taking on the title role.
Writer-director Kareem J. Mortimer gives us a taste of island flavor, a dose of the racism/classism that kicks into high gear whenever a lot of immigrants shows up.
But it’s a slow moving thriller, spiraling into a grimness that allows for no heroics, no nobility, just the desperate struggling with the more desperate in situations that turn from bleak to dire, all of it scored with dialogue that hits “hackneyed” far too often for its own good.
Kevin (British actor Warren Brown, best known for co-starring in “Luther”) is the fisherman, unable to pay his mate (Omar J. Dorsey), ineptly filleting under-sized snapper after the latest failed trip.
He’s in the hole, with a nice house where his beautiful but sullen wife (Persia White) hides out, basically in shame, refusing to care for his demented mother. And the biggest expense is his tweenage son’s private school tuition. Because Kevin went to a private school and figures he owes the boy “at least as much a chance” as he had.
His chance, we’re teased, was probably in the past. He got them all stateside, and screwed up royally once there.
“Am I the worst thing that ever happened to you?”
“Yes. The worst…I married ‘less.'”
She has a grievance, a BIG one.
Now, he’s gambling away his little ready cash in a desperate attempt to get even.
Celianne (Gessica Geneus) has a boy of her own, a Haitian single-mom longing to save up enough to get them to Miami, where her mother has relocated. Waitressing is the only gig she can land, and she takes abuse from the Native Bahamian who owns the joint just to keep that job.
Kevin’s offered the chance to do a little work for “The Major” (Craig Pinder, sporting the most authentic accent in the movie). Human trafficking?
“Dat sounds sinister…I’m not in the slave trade. I provide a service. I prefer to call it ‘de transpor-TATION business.'”
All Kevin has to do is take small boatloads of Haitians from Nassau to “The Berrys” (small, less developed Bahamian islands) where faster boats will shuttle them to Florida.
Easy money, right? Sure.
Mortimer, who specializes in tales with this setting (2010’s “Children of God”) gives us just enough of that local color to give “Cargo” a sense of place.
But he’s basically telling the wrong end of the story, the least interesting and most cliched “white gambler in trouble and cheating on his wife” tale. And he takes forever to get down to it.
The English dialogue (the film is in English and Creole) practically groans with cliches – “Maybe I’ll get lucky.” “I’ve always been there for you, right? As long as your daddy has breath in him, I’ll work it out…I’ll protect you.”
This extends to Kevin’s dealings with the waitress whose life he takes an interest in and his extremely patriarchal treatment of her.
We see far too little of Celianne’s story, figure out only bits and pieces of her life and cannot fathom why she’d tumble for the handsome white fisherman with no apparent means of improving her and her little boy’s lots.
A Jamaican maid (Sky Nicole Grey, good) comes in further complicating matters, joining Kevin’s mother and other “passengers” — not necessarily satisfied with his or the screenplay’s service.
All the while, our “hero” is scrambling to pay the damned private school tuition so that his bi-racial kid can enjoy the white privilege he himself, “a white man in this country,” has had and squandered.
The Major has almost all of the best lines, and they feel improvised — as if the actor was helping out a writer-director who’s only seen movies and listened to the dialogue in them (a common problem with greener filmmakers).
“So, now you is the Jesus Christ of human smugglers! If you play with puppy, he lick you mouth!”
We’re treated to a few lovely shots beneath the gin-clear waters of the Bahamas and a LOT of scenes of Kevin haggling with his bank, with the private school’s bursar, ambling around in his late model Mercedes station wagon, “helping” this or that Bahamian or Haitian, just shocked when his “help” isn’t appreciated, or competent.
“You can tell someone is sincere by the look in their eye!”
Maybe you can. And you can tell a tin-eared screenwriter by her or his leaning on such lines to make his rambling, disjointed and too-often dull melodrama make sense.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Warren Brown, Gessica Geneus, Omar J. Dorsey, Persia White, Jamie Donnelly, Sky Nicole Grey, Jimmy Jean Louis
Credits: Written and directed by Kareem J. Mortimer. An Uncork’d Release
Running time: 1:52