Streaming Movie Review: ‘Guava Island’ Review: Donald Glover’s Island Getaway Is a Casual Charmer

Even as details were finally released earlier this week about “Guava Island,” the secret project that Donald Glover debuted at Coachella in advance of its Amazon Prime premiere Saturday, there was some confusion as to what exactly it would be.

It’s not a “visual album,” in the style of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” or Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer,” nor is it a feature-length jukebox narrative, à la “Purple Rain.” (It runs just shy of an hour.) But if we learned anything from Glover and the director Hiro Murai’s previous collaborations on the FX series “Atlanta,” it’s that they don’t mind if their work is difficult to classify — if anything, they seem to revel in it.

This Is America,” the much-seen and much-discussed Murai-directed music video for Glover’s musical alter ego, Childish Gambino. (The song is remixed and restaged here.)

Game of Thrones”) rules the island with an iron fist, and machine gun-slinging men patrol his factory floors.

“Guava Island’s” plot is as thin as the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney musicals of its distant heritage: Deni has planned a secret all-night music festival (not unlike, say, a secret musical film), but its attendees would consequently not work on Sunday, which is deeply unacceptable to Red Cargo. He offers Deni $10,000 to cancel the event, explaining, “I’m in charge of the people of this island. I have to do what’s best for everyone.” No prizes for guessing whether the show goes on, though the consequences of that decision carry more weight than usual.

Thus, it’s one of those stories where the musical numbers are “realistic” (kinda, sorta) because the protagonist is a musician, and Murai takes thankful pains to work the songs into the fabric of the narrative. Yet there’s not as much music as one might expect, considering the pedigrees of its stars. Aside from Deni’s radio songs, there are only a handful of musical numbers, most of them reworking existing Gambino tracks. (Rihanna, even more surprisingly, doesn’t sing at all.)

But there’s real juice to those sequences, which include a lovely, beachside rendering of “Summertime Magic” and a concert performance of “Saturday” that manages to stage the kind of joy that’s spontaneously captured in the best concert documentaries, like “Wattstax” and “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” Onstage, Deni frames his event as “a celebration of life — I want everyone here to feel as free as you possibly can tonight,” and above all else, “Guava Island” is a paean to the pleasures of taking it easy. “We live in paradise,” Deni fumes, “but none of us have time or means to actually live here!”

City of God” as the film’s key influences, but it’s also filled with echoes of the 1973 Jimmy Cliff vehicle “The Harder They Come,” another story of an island musician’s brushes with the criminal underworld. The casually gorgeous, sun-soaked photography apes that film’s grainy, 16-millimeter aesthetic (the cinematographer is Christian Sprenger, who also shoots “Atlanta”), and delivers a timeless, throwback quality; if not set in the past, the picture is rooted in a world that’s stuck there, where no one has a smartphone and everyone still listens to the radio.

The film’s primary shared attribute with “Atlanta” is its cockeyed, eccentric worldview, a matter-of-fact acceptance of everyday absurdity. (When Deni is kidnapped and taken to see Red Cargo, he’s sternly told to make a nametag.) That approach proves adaptable to the thriller elements, particularly considering Glover’s gift for reactive comedy — he can get a laugh with something as simple as a shifted gaze or even a dumbfounded deadpan.

Rihanna, rather depressingly, has little more to do than to be “the girl”: inspire Deni with her beauty, worry about his safety, and (the oldest and moldiest of tropes) try to decide when and how to tell him she’s pregnant. It’s a dispiriting waste of such a fiery, complicated performer. But she and Glover have movie-star chemistry and charisma to burn, and Murai knows to lean into the glorious, off-the-cuff moment when she succumbs to her love’s pleas and dances, ever so briefly, alongside him. Letitia Wright, so frisky and engaging in “Black Panther,” likewise doesn’t get much to do, but the chillingly affable Anozie makes the most of his minimal screen time.

“Guava Island” was made in Cuba, and a remote, location shoot with a chummy, insular crew could have resulted in an Adam Sandler-style throwaway, merely an excuse for a paid vacation in a sunny locale. But in this light, playful effort, the offhanded breeziness is a feature, not a bug. The script is by Glover’s brother Stephen, also of “Atlanta,” but the story is credited to both men and three more “Atlanta” writers. And that tracks; it feels very much like a movie a bunch of friends thought up late one night, perhaps while sharing a blunt, as a party was winding down. This is meant as a compliment.

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