Skimma, the crafty protagonist of Damian Marcano’s rich feature Chee$e, yearns for a life outside of his village. His town, located on a never-named island (my guess is Trinidad and Tobago), is called “God’s back” because even the Lord seems to have forgotten about it. The residents rise before the sun to work hard, but their labor — mostly service in white tourism — doesn’t seem to amount to much.
At least that’s what Skimma (played by a remarkable Akil Gerard Williams) thinks. “We suck on the big fish in hopes that when it eats, we eat. At least most of us,” he explains through voiceover at the start of the film. “Some others are on a different mission.”
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Skimma’s dreams are bigger than island life. He longs for the same mobility as the tourists who pass through his village. One evening, while sitting around a beach bonfire with his more contented friend, Peter (Julio Prince), Skimma hatches their escape plan: Using the lessons he’s learned working for a local cheesemaker (Piero Guerini), Skimma plans to package weed from a plantation owned by a spacey Rastaman (Yida Leonard), store them into blocks of homemade cheese and sell them. In no time, Skimma tells Peter, they will have enough money to do as they please.
The plan is almost fool-proof. Threatening Skimma’s cosmopolitan dreams is Rebecca (Yida Leonard), the lovelorn daughter of a pious restaurant owner, who is pregnant with Skimma’s child. Although Skimma initially denies paternity, memories of his own father’s abandonment force him to realize that he must provide for his unborn child.
Chee$e is a story about Skimma’s scheme and its increasing risk of danger. Marcano, whose directing credits include episodes of FX’s Snowfall and HBO’s Winning Time, constructs a twisted rags-to-riches tale, animated by striking visuals, an exuberant score and mesmerizing performances from a formidable cast. The film radiates a casually intimate energy, the kind achieved with close-knit friends during party nights that stretch into the morning. So absorbing is Marcano’s self-contained world, so compelling is his filmic language, that one might be surprised when the credits roll nearly two hours later.
Skimma manages to conscript Peter, and the two make a first batch of cheese that they sell to Parrot (Trevison Pantin), a local dealer, for $9,500. The truth is that Skimma would have taken any amount of money. He uses part of his earnings to purchase a teal vintage Toyota Carina, an indication that even with the weight of potential fatherhood, he isn’t quite ready to let go of his dreams.
Cheese, the name they start using for Skimma’s specially packaged weed, instantly takes off, becoming the island’s most in-demand drug. What Skimma thought would be a one-time project expands into a full-fledged operation as he, Peter and Parrot work to meet demand. The lucrative business affords Skimma a new lifestyle — life on the island looks and feels different with money. But it also makes him a police target. Waiting in the shadows of Skimma’s success is Sgt. Leon (Kevin Ash), a recently disgraced police officer trying to restore his reputation by rigorously enforcing the rule of law. He knows Skimma and Peter are up to something, although he can’t prove it yet.
Chee$e is the first installment of a planned trilogy, so Marcano spends much of the film carefully building a vivid portrait of life on this island. We see Skimma spending time with the cheesemaker, Mr. Ottone, who adopts him as an apprentice; their conversations reveal their level of intimacy and the uneven power dynamic within their relationship. Time is dedicated to understanding the culture of the local precinct, filled with officers who openly mock Leon’s law-and-order machismo. Best of all are the sequences with Rebecca, who must navigate the aftermath of telling her mother, Miss Maria (Binta Ford), a godly woman, about her pregnancy. These moments deepen our understanding of the characters and the world in which they live. They’re also opportunities for the excellent performers to show off their chops delivering Marcano’s dynamic and frequently laugh-out-loud funny dialogue.
Language is a site of play and experimentation in Chee$e. Characters speak in thick dialects, but the on-screen subtitles aren’t mere transliterations — Marcano translates tone and subtext, too. When Rebecca and Miss Maria are sitting around a table with the women’s church group, the biting implications of their conversation are made clearer by the words onscreen. The subtitles are just as dynamic as the performers’ articulation of their lines: They pop up and down and slide left and right, mimicking and strengthening the mood of a particular moment.
There are parts of Chee$e — particularly revolving around Skimma and Rebecca’s one-night stand — that don’t click as well as others, but the Trinidadian filmmaker has left himself room to perhaps eventually tighten and correct. The movie, which took seven years to make, feels like the director’s playground — a wide canvas for him to practice different ways of honoring his people.
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