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 powerful. The film 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 deservedly gives it a wider audience and shot at distribution. Sorelle worked on casting Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, set in Miami like this film, and that film’s clear influence on Mountains is a very good thing.
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Set in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, an ever-changing home for so many Haitian immigrant families, it is clearly a time of major disruption. The lead character, Xavier (Atibon Nazaire), works on a construction crew knocking down long-standing houses in the area where he also lives.
His is a modest but colorful house he shares with his wife Esperance (Sheila Anozier), a seamstress and crossing guard. Their adult son, the very Americanized Junior (Chris Renois), works as a parking valet but is really an aspiring stand-up comic. He is also a college dropout and disappointment to his father, who wants better for his son 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. He has his eye on a lovely and more spacious white home in the area.
Of course, she wonders where they will get the money, but like Walter Lee Younger he does not let that get in the way. 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 heavily plot-driven. It takes its time and presents these lives in vignettes against a backdrop that subtly shows the life they have known in America, and how 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 well-served by that familiarity. Mountains benefits from a 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 an 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 (Centerpiece)
Director: Monica Sorelle
Screenwriters: Monica Sorelle, Robert Colom
Cast: Atibon Nazaire, Sheila Anozier, Chris Renois
Running time: 1 hr 35 min
Sales agent: CAA Media Finance
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