Review by Paul Stathakis | March 22, 2019

Innocence lost

Nona (Sulem Calderon) is a young woman with a face that robs her of her youth. It’s not that she looks old­er than her age but her face seems tired. Beneath her free-spir­it­ed appear­ance is a woman cry­ing out for help. There is sad­ness in her eyes. When she glances into the dis­tance, it’s almost as if she’s look­ing back on all the strug­gles she’s had to endure along the way. And endure she cer­tain­ly has, in all of her soli­tude. She is a mor­ti­cian because that’s the clos­est she can get to real­iz­ing her dream of becom­ing a beau­ti­cian. She is lone­ly. She pre­pares sup­per in her tiny apart­ment only to eat alone with man­nequin heads as com­pa­ny. The mes­sage is clear from the start: this is not a film about over­com­ing hard­ships to find suc­cess and ful­fill­ment. This is a film about sur­vival and about char­ac­ters who con­tin­ue to per­se­vere in a large­ly frag­ile world. When Nona informs her aunt that she’s leav­ing Hon­duras for Amer­i­ca, her aunt issues her a warn­ing in the form of a sto­ry involv­ing a near-death expe­ri­ence. “Be aware,” she tells Nona, “this world is an unfor­giv­ing place.”

The man who inspires Nona to embark on this jour­ney is Hecho (Jesy McK­in­ney), a hand­some and charm­ing drifter. Their plan is to cross through Guatemala and Mex­i­co to enter the Unit­ed States. Nona, des­per­ate for oppor­tu­ni­ty and her moth­er, believes Hecho will bring her there. Direc­tor Michael Pol­ish skill­ful­ly trans­ports view­ers. We nev­er quite know where this jour­ney will lead to. But because we care deeply about Nona, we hope that she will find her way. For a while, it seems as though she might. The far­ther she trav­els from Hon­duras, she con­vinces her­self that the world around her is slow­ly becom­ing bet­ter and gen­tler. Pol­ish focus­es on nature, show­ing us pre­cise­ly what Nona sees: the beau­ty in the trees, in the rays of the sun, in the crisp­ness of the wind, in danc­ing, and in walk­ing with pur­pose. Rid­ing atop a van, Nona holds a scarf in the air to let the wind blow through it. As the wind caress­es her hair, she extends her arms as though she is glid­ing. She feels free in a way she’s per­haps nev­er felt before. But make no mis­take: this film, like the long road its char­ac­ters trav­el, takes many unex­pect­ed turns to ulti­mate­ly arrive at very dark place.

In “Nona”, view­ers are treat­ed to sev­er­al splen­did panora­mas but the expe­di­tion itself does at times feel some­what tedious and unnec­es­sar­i­ly drawn out. The film also has an odd way of roman­ti­ciz­ing death and mis­for­tune. The con­ver­sa­tions that Hecho and Nona have are every bit philo­soph­i­cal as they are mor­bid. In one scene, Nona describes the process of prepar­ing a corpse for view­ing. That she’s able to amuse her­self with her own expla­na­tions reveals how numb she’s become to the notion of death. There are also sev­er­al instances in the film where she con­fess­es that she’s not afraid of death. Though the film has its share of flaws, it is Calderon’s per­for­mance that tru­ly car­ries the sto­ry for­ward. Her smile infus­es us with opti­mism and her tears serve as a painful reminder of the harsh real­i­ty on dis­play here. Calderon has a pow­er­ful face that tells a sto­ry of its own — so pow­er­ful that it right­ful­ly adorns the poster. This is her film in every way.


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