Chee$e: a playful, inventive Caribbean stoner comedy

Damian Marcano’s second film is a breezy, idiosyncratic affair, distinguished by its clever use of subtitles, hallucinatory camerawork, and picaresque narrative, which unspools on the shores of Trinidad.

16 October 2022

By Simran Hans

Yidah Leonard and Akil Gerard Williams as Rebecca and Skimma in Chee$e (2022)
Sight and Sound

Late at night, informed by an anonymous tip-off, five armed policemen, two in bulletproof vests, prepare for a drug raid. Cut to an advert for “Bago Light,” described in chirpy all-caps as THE VACATION IN A GLASS. According to the small print at the bottom of the screen, the fictional beer is “a registered trademark of the Rastaman’s enterprise”. It’s a witty joke, and a sly acknowledgement that this comedy will be viewed by some as a kind of commercial for director Damian Marcano’s native Trinidad and Tobago. “We smile and play along, all in exchange for that almighty dollar,” says his protagonist in voiceover. Marcano emigrated to the United States aged 12 and has clear affection for his mother country’s landscapes and its people, described in the film as the fibre of the working class. Yet there is also empathy for his protagonist, Skimma, a young man who dreams of leaving the island for what he hopes will be a better life.

In the sleepy, postcard-perfect beach town of Turtle Village, Skimma (Akil Gerard Williams) has been working as an apprentice fromager under the tutelage of Mr. Ottone (Piero Guerini). When Skimma meets Osiris (Lou Lyons), a “crazy Rastaman” with a marijuana farm, he’s inspired to steal a cut, and smuggle it into the wheels of cheese he makes. His recipe is so powerful it has customers floating on air (we see one levitating, “just above the Earth, and just below the moon”). It’s enough of a hit that he ropes in his best friend Peter (Julio Prince) to help. The pair start selling it wholesale to a local dealer, Parrot (Trevison Pantin). Skimma could do with the extra cash; a drunken one-night stand, Rebecca (Yidah Leonard), has informed him that she is pregnant with his child. He’s also got his eye on a getaway car – vintage, turquoise, and shimmering with promise. Venezuela beckons just seven miles across the ocean.

But Skimma’s thriving business is threatened when the local police, empowered by a recent bust involving a truckload of Pampers, begin to smell that something is off. It’s a classic picaresque, with the rascally Skimma’s goofy adventures narrated in the first person.

There’s a hallucinatory quality to Marcano’s neon, off-kilter camerawork, which moves slowly, swaying slightly, as though the camera itself has a contact high. Stoner chat about genetically modified chicken is illustrated by surreal, computer-generated headless birds, while flashbacks of Skimma’s own absent father play out as vivid kaleidoscopic fragments. The spirit of Skimma’s father, known to be a scoundrel and a player, was supposedly banished to the forest. In one of many laugh-out-loud scenes, Osiris is greeted by a deep, disembodied voice, a pothead’s parody of Simba’s late father, Mufasa, in The Lion King (1994). “You see anyone else talking to the fucking trees?” the lilting voice booms. These heightened moments of silliness add texture to Marcano’s portrait of island life.

Clever, dynamic subtitles float and dance across the screen, mining comedy in the dissonance between what his characters say and what they actually mean. At one point, Marcano ‘translates’ the patois at a women’s meeting concerning Rebecca’s pregnancy. “Remember, we have other young people to think about,” says the church matriarch. “Remember, whoring is contagious,” reads the subtitle.

Marcano uses a breezy light touch to question the island’s casual misogyny and conservative parochialism and satirise the church’s toxic grip on the community. “In our village, it’s plain illegal to have an abortion,” clarifies Skimma’s voiceover. The church is the state, he says. “Boys and books don’t agree!” taunt Rebecca’s puritanical cousins, roughing her up on the beach and pocketing Skimma’s financial support as hush money. The film critiques colourism, too, poking fun at a dodgy police officer’s internalised racism. “But you are Black too?” says Skimma, who has been pulled over for looking suspicious. “I’m a mid-Atlantic brown,” the cop replies. Osiris warns Skimma that he might experience racism abroad, but their home, it turns out, is beset by similar problems.

The film is the first part of a planned trilogy and so builds to a cliffhanger ending. A follow-up would certainly create opportunities to develop some of this film’s more memorable minor characters, like the wild-haired Obeah priestess Hortencia (Ayanna Cezanne Leonard) – even if eking out an already unhurried hangout movie into three feature-length instalments might make for a less potent hit.

► Chee$e is part of the Laugh strand at the 2022 London Film Festival; it screened on 5 and 8 October, and will be available to stream on BFI Player until 23 October.

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