by Mahdis Marzooghian
Written and directed by Michael Polish, Nona starts off with an unrestrained look at the bustling, dangerous streets of Honduras and the nearby village where our main character Nona, played by Sulem Calderon, lives by herself. We soon learn that all but one of Nona’s immediate family members have been killed. Her brothers were killed during a home invasion and her father was gunned down on his way home from buying a bag of chips.
In Nona, violence and poverty have become an ingrained, normalized part of Honduran society. This is further established at Nona’s job at a funeral home where she “paints the dead.” She seems to feel at home in the presence of death; it’s familiar. One of the first few scenes shows her talking to the pictures of her dead brothers and father in a way that never questions the injustice of their deaths. It is what it is. Yet Nona wants to leave all this behind and be reunited with her only surviving family member, her mother, who lives in America.
One day, Nona meets a handsome, smooth-talking tourist named Hecho, played by Jesy McKinney, who offers to smuggle Nona into the United States. This is where Nona starts to veer off track.
After Hecho and Nona embark for the United States, most of the film’s remaining run-time feels like an unhurried, borderline-romanticized travel story. The cinematography focuses on lush, peaceful scenes of picturesque Honduran and Mexican landscapes as the pair travels by bus and train. The two become comfortable with each other; they laugh and share stories. In a matter of days, they’ve become travel buddies. Granted, this is from Nona’s perspective, who is supposed to be unsuspecting, but up until Hecho meets up with the very creepy driver, Billy (Giancarlo Ruiz), there’s really no sense of danger. This choice to distance from the looming danger makes it feel as if director Michael Polish doesn’t trust the audience.
By the time Nona finally starts to doubt her smooth-talking travel companion, the revelation has lost its impact. We’ve known what was going to happen all along despite the director’s best efforts to trick us into believing as Nona believed. The pacing is completely off-kilter and there's absolutely no balance between the traveling portion and the brief glimpse that we’re given of the horrors of the brothel where Nona is taken.
The brief scenes of the women we’re introduced to at the brothel feel insufficient. Their tragic lives are shown in fleeting moments leading up to the end of the movie. The little time devoted to their traumatic stories feels markedly imbalanced in comparison to the slower pacing of Nona’s travels with Hecho.
Pacing problems aside, there’s plenty to commend about the performances in Nona. Newcomer Sulem Calderon gives us a convincing portrayal of the film’s titular character. She is self-assured and knows exactly who she is, while McKinney’s Hecho does an excellent job of coming off as both simultaneously harmless and unpredictable. He’s almost likable if we didn’t know what he’s done and what he’s up to. Regrettably, Kate Bosworth’s time on screen as a police detective who’s taken an interest in Nona’s fate, is much too brief and pointlessly spent on narrating Nona’s experience in English.
Nona is most powerful when it focuses on the dangers of living in an impoverished country. One of the most memorable scenes is when Nona’s aunt relates her harrowing experience of escaping within an inch of her life after her car was gunned down by gang members. While it’s true that violence and poverty go hand-in-hand with human trafficking, Nona, with its long and rosy second act, fails to make a connection. If it did mean to focus on the issue of human trafficking, then Nona unfortunately took too long to get to the point.
Images in this review were provided courtesy of TriCoast Worldwide.