'Mountains' review: Tender directorial debut explores gentrification in Miami's Little Haiti

‘Mountains’ review: Tender directorial debut explores gentrification in Miami’s Little Haiti

In his directorial debut Mountains, Monica Sorelle tackles the story of a Haitian family facing gentrification with a delicate and insightful eye. The languidly paced feature observes Xavier (Atibon Nazaire), a demolisher contemplating buying a better home as he grapples with the implications of the changing dynamics of his Miami neighborhood.

Xavier, his wife Esperance (Sheiler Anozier) and their adult son Junior (Chris Renois) live in Little Haiti, a bustling enclave in Miami that is home to tens of thousands of Haitian immigrants. The neighborhood’s name is attributed to Viter Juste, an activist who moved to Miami from Brooklyn in 1973 and convinced other Haitians to join him. The proximity of the area to both the beach and the city center made it attractive. Today, its protection from major floods—it’s 10 feet above sea level—has caught the attention of developers and real estate agents. They marketed Little Haiti as a residential dream and threatened its rich history and present.

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The bottom line

Quietly beautiful.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (US narrative competition)
Launch: Atibon Nazaire, Sheila Anozier, Chris Renois
Director: Monica Sisters
Screenwriter: Monica Sorelle, Robert Colom

1 hour and 35 minutes

As a breaker, Xavier is at the forefront of this rapid change. We meet him while he is at work, guarding a crane demolishing an abandoned house. With her DP Javier Labrador Deulofeu, Sorelle portrays a construction site operation as one filled with balletic movements. There is a certain grace in these and other scenes Mountainswho indulges nicely in the details of a family’s life.

Helen Peña’s picturesque set design and Waina Chancy’s costumes reward this view, especially in Xavier’s modest home. The organization of the space is reminiscent of the kind of narrow geometry of many immigrant houses. Xavier and Esperance’s nightstands are overflowing with prescription bottles, framed photos, reading glasses, Blue Magic hair gel, and other styling products. Their kitchen walls display more photographs and cultural objects, and another room, from which Esperance, a seamstress, works, is filled with vibrant fabrics, a sewing machine, and scraps from past projects. The kitchen, filled with appliances and a meal table, is where the great family conversations take place.

It’s at this kitchen table, later that night after work, that Xavier tells his wife about the beautiful house with a “For Sale” sign he’s spotted on his evening commute. Seeing the bigger place fired his imagination. What if they sell their current home and buy the new one? What if they put their savings into it? What if they could live a different version of their life? “Let’s have some dreams together, love,” he says.

Esperance is skeptical. The crux of Mountains revolves around Xavier trying to convince his wife that they should take a risk, but Sisters, who co-wrote the script with producer Robert Colom, covers other topics as well. The results are not uniform. Xavier’s risky relationship with his college dropout to become a stand-up comedian gets some screen time but not enough to match the telegraphed stakes. The same goes for Xavier’s workplace drama, filled with racism, microaggressions, and interethnic suspicions. And then there’s the tension from changing the wider community, which Sisters feeds us through flashes and snippets of party conversation.

The number of these intersecting threads is exciting, a sign that Sorelle, a director who worked in the casting department of Moonlight, has a lot to say. His film bears the aesthetic imprint of Barry Jenkins’ meditative feature film (also set in Miami), but also has echoes of the patriarchal isolation explored in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun A screaming manas well as the intimate family drama of Lorraine Hansberry’s comedy A raisin in the sun and the recent by Gabriel Martins Mars One. Mountains achieves an energy similar to these works, whose protagonists have to make crucial decisions against the backdrop of rapid social change. As Mars One particularly, Mountains it makes the working-class immigrant experience as joyous, if not more, than outside pressure.

Even when MountainsThe narrative, which often feels more like a series of beautifully conjured cartoons, falls short of its full potential, the way Sisters think about gentrification rewards our close attention. The director portrays it as a slow creep, showing that the process not only changes the physicality of a neighborhood – with its constant exchange of old for new – but also affects its sound and emotional landscapes.

Exterior shots of Xavier’s home at the beginning of the film show a Haitian neighbor strolling down the street, excitedly gossiping on the phone, occasionally saying hello to Xavier and his family. Later, he is replaced by a younger white woman, who loudly scolds her friend and casually leans against Xavier’s fence. She doesn’t see or recognize the older man with the questioning expression on his face.

The news on the local radio station that Xavier listens to on his way to work also changes, delivering increasingly grim news of business closures and church closures. These are the signs – subtle and otherwise – of a community’s extinction. But Sisters’ film isn’t necessarily a premature elegy for Little Haiti; is a silent and moving announcement of presence.