A low-key, poetic exploration of life’s ironies, Monica Sorelle’s feature debut Mountains frames the disappearance of Miami’s Little Haiti with a warm, compassionate gaze recalling the masters of social realism––akin to Roberto Rossellini with the touch of Ousmane Sembène’s lighter films. With a title drawn from a Haitian proverb “behind mountains there are mountains,” the film retains a light touch, somewhat more sad than mad as Little Haiti disappears in the city’s building boom. A modest dream home is unobtainable once the real estate vultures circle the neighborhood and Xavier Sr. (Atibon Nazaire), a demolition worker, plays a role in changing his neighborhood permanently, making way for young Whole Foods-shopping professionals to displace families and small businesses.
Xavier Sr. lives in a small bungalow with crossing guard / homemaker wife Esperance (Sheila Anoizer) and their floundering 20-something son Junior (Chris Renois), an aspiring stand-up comedian. They are a happy, hardworking family with Xavier Sr. playing peacemaker at work, helping to quell a dispute between the company’s nephew and a young Haitian who dreams of bling rather than work gloves. Employed as a valet, Junior is given some opportunities to work in a car dealership but chooses his stand-up comedy passion, sneaking out after dark to find his community in a local comedy club.
Recalling Sembène’s meditations on wealth and the modern working class such as Faat Kiné, Mountains is an evocative look at a strong Haitian family, beautifully capturing the rhythms of everyday life, often with Javier Labrador Deulofeu’s camera slowly panning across the landscapes of work: from Esperance at home in her crowded kitchen––which doubles as the dining room and a workspace––to showing the foundations Xavier helps clear for a mini-mansion or a high-density housing development. He does so without question until he and Esperance lose their dream home to a higher bidder, a modest cottage repped by an unseen blonde, white woman who has identified the neighborhood as ripe for gentrification.
Mountains revisits Little Haiti a few years after Edson Jean’s fantastic character study Ludi, which features a young, hardworking, exhausted nurse attempting to live her version of the American Dream despite systematic barriers in her way. The family at the core of Mountains has a few more advantages than she does, presumably owning their home while watching the character of the community evaporate with each new young professional walking with their dogs, iced coffee in hand, around the block adoring the “culture” as if it’s just another lifestyle item.
While the film is about that, it’s largely a character study, a celebration of Haitian culture, and, of course, an exploration of the American struggle that the next generation may have more barriers to entry into the middle class than the generation before it. Mountains is a beautifully lensed record of a community not unlike the lost Bunker Hill neighborhood of Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles or the Watts district of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. It’s rare to see a film that captures a disappearing community with such immediacy, remorse, and, yes, occasional joy.
Mountains premiered at Tribeca Festival.