With the plaintive ballad that bookends Sand Dollars, bachata singer Ramón Cordero could be speaking for seventysomething Anne (Geraldine Chaplin). She’s fallen for a young Dominican girl, Noeli (Yanet Mojica), who makes her living from the gifts and tips she gleans from tourists like Anne, engaging in a less overtly mercenary version of the “girlfriend experience.” As Anne wanders the streets of Las Terrenas, a Dominican seaside resort town, pining for her elusive love, Cordero croons: “I live in grief because I don’t see you here.” Meanwhile, Noeli and her boyfriend, Menor (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), suffer the pain of another kind of thwarted love, more often triggered by seeing than by missing one another: Any time they run into each other in their favorite nightclub, Noeli is almost sure to be with one of her meal tickets, around whom the two pretend to be brother and sister.
Like Heading South, a similar story of sexual tourism in Haiti, the quietly touching Sand Dollars respects and plumbs the feelings of all three main characters while surfacing the economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender power imbalances in their relationships. Noeli could easily have been made to seem either predatory or victimized, but the film depicts a more complicated reality.
Noeli’s forthright requests for money and occasional reluctance to go back to Anne bring to the surface her distaste for the deception she feels obliged to engage in, at Menor’s urging. Meanwhile, the easy intimacy between the two women and the tenderness with which Noeli caresses the sleeping Anne’s cheek before leaving her make clear that the younger woman truly cares about the older one. And when Anne sees Noeli flirting at the club with the man she had claimed was her brother, she’s both a deeply wounded underdog, skulking away to lick her wounds, and a cluelessly entitled interloper who thinks her hurt feelings justify walking out without paying the bar bill. At best, she’s leaving the impoverished Noeli with a bill she surely cannot afford, and she may even be putting her in physical jeopardy, since Noeli is run off the road on her motor scooter and robbed on the way home, the muggers perhaps collecting for the bar owner.
Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas’s realistically minimal dialogue scrupulously avoids expository backstory, yet we learn a lot about the characters, in part through their brief, subtext-rich bursts of conversation, though mostly through their actions and the way they’re depicted. Just as the love between Noeli and Menor is powerfully transmitted through their body language (the radiant grins they break into in each other’s company, the way she fits into the curve of his back and shoulder as she rides on the back of his motor scooter, the imperious wave of her hand as she sends him away in anger), so is their tamped-down longing as they stealthily search each other out in the club while dancing or flirting with one of the tourists.
Frequent close-ups emphasize both the characters’ emotions and the contrast between them. Chaplin uses her little face, with its sad, sad eyes and air of restless, slightly anxious intelligence, to telegraph the aching vulnerability of an almost certainly unrequited love made more—or perhaps less—bearable by just a dash of hope. Mojica’s full-featured face looks dignified beyond her years when Noeli is self-contained and quiet, as she usually is, but reveals itself to be startlingly young when her character lets her guard down.
Often naked or in bathing suits, the women’s bodies are equally eloquent. Anne’s elegantly thin frame looks almost skeletal at times in contrast to Noeli’s willowy yet pillowy young flesh, and when her mottled white hand clutches Noeli’s smooth brown shoulder, the gesture is weighted with the long history of white people’s fascination with less entitled black people’s bodies.
Sand Dollars’s soft-focus backgrounds and rich silvery and gold tones highlight both Mojica’s beauty and the gorgeous, relatively wild seaside settings, while the velvety darkness, silhouetted bodies, and flashing colored lights of the club create an intimate alternative to the outdoors where almost all the rest of the action takes place. This is the Dominican Republic as seen through the eyes of tourists like Anne: a paradise whose beauty is perhaps all the more alluring because it’s just out of reach.