The softer they come, the softer they fall in Wah Do Dem, a micro-budget indie (it was shot for approximately $75,000) about a blinkered Brooklynite. Max, played by a mouth-breathing, deadpan Sean Bones as a hipster Napoleon Dynamite, is the kind of plaid-shirted, knit-capped, self-satisfied lad you can’t picture much more than five miles from Williamsburg. Or, as a fellow passenger on the cruise he won in a contest puts it: “Surprise, surprise. You don’t fit in everywhere in the world.” Of course, in real life, Max would have sold the cruise on Craigslist, or used it as a launching pad for some arty project, the way co-directors Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner decided to make the cruise Chace won into a setting for their first feature. But I’m glad he didn’t, since his story turns out to be an entertaining culture-clash fable.
Wah Do Dem (the title, which is never explained, apparently translates roughly to “What’s wrong with them?”) starts slow, with too much footage from the cruise (hey, did you know people eat and drink a lot and dance really badly on those things?). But then we land in Jamaica and things start to get interesting. Max’s provincialism and narcissistic faith in his own coolness make him an easy mark for hustlers, and the dumb decisions he keeps making leave him more and more stranded, but it’s all irie in the end. Literally losing his shirt sets him off on a journey—by car, bus, motorcycle, and ultimately on foot—that gives him the taste of “the real Jamaica” that he was looking for.
Max’s excellent adventure could easily have degenerated into PC cliché or offensive exoticism, and it does slide dangerously close to that edge when a fellow passenger on a bus turns around to introduce himself and self-consciously performs a song, or when a red-eyed mystic (Carl Bradshaw) takes Max on a walk through tall weeds while chanting a nonstop monologue about the meaning of life.
Some pointless herky-jerky camera movement toward the beginning nearly made me seasick, and there are too many tourist’s-eye shots of picturesque shacks and crippled dogs. But some of the landscapes are so gorgeous and the faces so interesting that they register despite the uninspired camerawork, and there’s lots of good music, both by Brooklyn musicians (including Bones) and Jamaicans. Eekamouse sings a song, and Norah Jones, who makes a couple of brief appearances as the girlfriend who dumps Max just before the cruise, sings a duet with Bones on the soundtrack.
But what won me over were the scenes that have the immediacy and energy of unrehearsed reality, and there are plenty of those. In a pickup soccer game Max joins, the elation he shares with strangers in a bar when Obama’s win is announced, his wordless flirtation with a girl at that bar, and his encounter with a young man who first tries to rob him and then decides to help him, Wah Do Dem captures enough Jamaican flavor and street wisdom to say a little something about what the people in steerage have to teach the folks on the upper decks.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.