Watching Mountains, which just made its international debut as part of the Toronto Film Festival’s Centerpiece program, I could not help but think of two other landmark films it seems to recall in its own way. One was 2019’s The Last Black Man In San Francisco, a remarkable story of gentrification and its effect on those being edged out of their home that starred Jimmie Falls and launched the career of Jonathan Majors. The other was the 1960 film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s oft-performed A Raisin In The Sun in which Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger played a struggling husband, son, and father with a dream for a new house and a better life for his family.
Put them together and you have the bones of what makes Director and Co-Writer (with Producer Robert Colom) Monica Sorelle’s affecting and meditative debut feature so affecting. It had premiered under the radar at June’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won a special Jury mention for Narrative Films, but its TIFF placement perhaps deservedly gives it a wider audience and shot at distribution . Sorelle had worked on casting Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winning Moonlight, set in Miami like this film, and the clear influence there on Mountains is a very good thing as well.
Set in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, an ever-changing home for so many Haitian immigrant families to find home in America, it is clearly a time of major disruption as evidenced by the lead character, Xavier (Atibon Nazaire) who works on a construction crew now in the business of knocking down previously long standing houses in the area where he also lives in a modest but colorful house with his wife Esperance (Sheila Anozier), a seamstress and crossing guard, and their adult son, the very Americanized Junior (Chris Renois) who works as a parking valet but is really an aspiring stand up comic, and also a college dropout and disappointment to his father who wants better for him in life than he ever got.
The day job of knocking down houses, and his own family dynamic are set in scenes that play as snapshots of these everyday lives, but into it all is Xavier’s dream and intention to find a way to convince Esperance it is time to move to a bigger place, and he has his eye on a lovely and more spacious white home in the area. Of course she wonders where they get the money, but like Walter Lee Younger he does not let that get in the way, and one of the film’s best scenes involves the two of them at an Open House interacting with the real estate representative and feeling the warmth of the sun as they sit in the backyard.
Although there are conflicts in the film, most notably the inherent racism apparent within Xavier’s construction crew and its white manager, Mountains is not a heavily plot-driven movie at all, but one that takes its time and presents these lives in vignettes and simplicity against a backdrop that subtly shows the life they have known in America, the dreams that got them here from a home country full of tragedy, are slowly fading away thanks to what some call “progress”.
Haitian-American Sorelle, who comes from Miami and knows this dynamic well, is like all good filmmakers with an idea to express what they know best. Mountains benefits from that feeling of authenticity and manages to be an enormously impressive feature debut. The crisp cinematography of Javier Labrador is excellent. Nazaire in the central role of Xavier is proud, frustrated, weary, aware, loving, and hopeful. It is a splendid performance of great subtlety and power. Anozier is a warm and wonderful presence throughout. Renois as Junior is a live wire, and actual stand up comic himself. The well-chosen and naturalistic supporting cast comes in and out but the focus is clearly on this family and the Little Haiti neighborhood that is slowly slipping away.
Festival: Toronto Film Festival
Sales Agent: CAA Media Finance
Director: Monica Sorelle
Screenplay: Monica Sorelle, Robert Colom
Cast: Atibon Nazaire, Sheila Anozier, Chris Renois
Running Time: 1 Hour and 35 Minutes