Wah Do Dem Review

A free cruise to Jamaica turns into a mystical music experience for Sean Bones in this US ‘slacker road movie’.

As far as US indie slacker movies go, it has to be said that they are a little predictable in their predominately suburban locations. The idea of a slacker road-movie is practically oxymoron, since by nature your average disaffected and alienated suburban youth isn’t going to rouse himself or feel sufficiently motivated to stray too far from home – certainly not anywhere out of reach of a mobile phone signal or without free WiFi access to a high-speed broadband internet connection. Such at least was the dilemma faced by Kevin Brewersdorf’s musician character in when he decided to take his homemade beat-box “on tour” in LOL, and even Kentucker Audley only swapped Memphis for Chicago to “hang around” somewhere new for a while in Team Picture. So while the idea of a slacker as a fish-out-of-water is a situation with plenty of potential (think Withnail and I), the chances of it ever happening in a way that feels realistic are slim …unless the person in question happened to win, for example, an all-expenses-paid cruise holiday from New York to Jamaica…

Still, you’d be surprised how many of his friends turn down the opportunity to join him on the trip when Max (Sean Bones) breaks up with his girlfriend Willow (Norah Jones) just days before the cruise is due to set sail for Jamaica. Or maybe they’re not so stupid after all – being stuck for a week on a cruise ship, wearing formal dress to dinners where you’re likely to be the only person under 65 who isn’t part of the entertainment crew. Think how much worse that would be then when you end up having to go on your own. As a musician with a love of reggae and roots music, the thought of being able to explore life in Jamaica first-hand appeals nonetheless to Max, and he’s determined to endure the trip and avoid the tourist centres when the ship arrives in Jamaica so that he can soak up some of the authentic vibes of the place. Inevitably, he gets rather more authenticity than he bargained for…

If that sounds a little contrived, it actually isn’t all that far-fetched, since in reality Wah Do Dem came about when filmmaker Ben Chace won a cruise holiday in a raffle and decided to use the free trip as an opportunity to make a film. After discussing story ideas with Sam Flesichner, a friend with a common interest in Jamaican music, they purchased a couple of additional tickets for musician/actor Sean Bones and noted indie soundtrack composer/actor Kevin Brewersdorf as Sound Editor (and additional cast member), arranged some contacts for their two-week stay in Jamaica and then just filmed around what they found during the trip and on their arrival.

Consequently Wah Do Dem (the title Jamaican Patois for “what’s wrong with them”) has the authentic US indie and mumblecore feel of semi-improvisation, following a predetermined plot-line, but being open to the possibilities that arise during filming and reacting to the unpredictable nature of working on a low-budget in circumstances that are certainly outside their comfort zone – which is in essence what the film is all about and practically its raison d’être. Accordingly, with their eye firmly on getting to Jamaica and exploring what it has to offer them, the filmmakers give little real consideration to the set-up, failing to give any real depth or explanation for the break-up between Max and Willow that results in him having to travel solo. A very brief cameo appearance fails to make adequate use then of singer Norah Jones (fine in her earlier appearance in Wong Kar-wai’s otherwise weak My Blueberry Nights), who has nothing more to do than mumble a couple of awkward “this isn’t working out” kind of lines.

There’s not really a lot more complexity given over either to the on-ship time during the length of the cruise, other than emphasising how much Max stands out from the rest of the passengers, although it does allow for one or two funny encounters (involving the drinking of a lot of alcohol), and there’s not a great deal of originality in the problems that Max encounters when the ship arrives at its destination and he goes off in search of the authentic Jamaica, its people and its music. But, as ever with this type of film, its qualities lie outside the conventional narrative format. What starts out then like a slacker road-movie (it being unconventionally on a cruise ship seems lazily appropriate despite the age of the rest of the clientele), becomes more of a musical journey into the heart of a country and its people, with tradition, religion, philosophy, culture all intertwined in its lifestyle. More reminiscent of Tony Gatliff’s Exiles – particularly in an encounter Max has with the legendary roots reggae collective The Congos – it becomes a search for identity that seems strange for a white boy in Jamaica, but an internal journey of sorts does occur within Max.

Mixed in with this is a political undercurrent of the US elections, the film taking place at the same time as Obama’s victory. This is not really explored in any detail, but could be seen to similarly represent a shift in attitudes in the wider global significance of America gaining its first black president. If much of this is left up to the viewer to piece together into something meaningful, the necessarily improvisational nature of the film’s making does capture some nice little moments and details, straying far from the usual tourist imagery of Jamaica and, other than where it needs to advance the plot and the journey, finding real people in mostly natural situations. And if outwardly there seems to have been little of significance that has occurred, with no obvious life-changing moments, the change nonetheless feels real and meaningful. Which, I suppose, is a description that could apply to Wah Do Dem as a whole.

Wah Do Dem is set for a limited UK cinema release on 27th August 2010, showing at the Ritzy Brixton, Picturehouse Greenwich and Picturehouse Liverpool.


Updated: Aug 23, 2010

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