Live Cargo Review

A grieving couple escape to the Bahamas in Live Cargo. On an island they find a kindhearted, aging patriarch and a cunning human trafficker.

Couples schedule honeymoons to decompress after weddings and then baby-moons to enjoy their last days/months before parenthood… but what do you call escaping to a tropical island after the tragic loss of your newborn child? It’s an awkward question for mixed-race couple Nadine (Dree Hemingway) and Lewis (Keith Stanfield), who carry their grief along with their luggage, to a small island in the Bahamas in Logan Sandler’s arresting black-and-white drama.

What it is is a homecoming—but not for who you might expect. Nadine grew up on the South Island and under the gaze of Roy (Robert Wisdom), the island’s aging patriarch. For the sake of this movie, he might as well be Nadine’s parental figure; while her father is mentioned briefly, Roy is the one to gift her his own spear so she can go fishing underwater, to check in with how she’s coping with an unspeakable loss.

Just as Nadine’s grief happened outside of Roy’s purview, he sees that his grip is slipping over other parts of the island: Doughboy (Leonard Earl Howze), who hides his menace behind a sly smile, has been stealing boats out from under Roy’s nose. This undermining betrayal, which is paired with new reports about the bodies of Haitian immigrants washing ashore, makes Doughboy’s shady business dealings clear. The live cargo of the title, then, is twofold: babies carried to destinations where they are welcomed and expected; and immigrants carried along to God knows what.

The latter isn’t on Nadine and Lewis’ radar, as they fervently try to enjoy themselves, or at least approximate a laidback island experience. But just as their going-through-the-motions is false, director Sandler (who co-wrote the script with Thymaya Payne) reveals that the stereotype of a carefree island is a ruse: the community is rife with tension, even in nighttime Junkanoo carnival dances around bonfires. The waves around the island roil ominously, reminding viewers of how deadly the water can be, especially when paired with thunderstorms from above.

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The only truly peaceful moments (also the film’s most beautiful) are when Nadine goes hunting underwater with even more ease than she has on the ground; yet even a scene of her prodding at a baby shark has its own dark lining.

Lewis, meanwhile, is completely out of his element. We never learn any specifics of his and Nadine’s relationship—aside from their tender final moments with their stillborn baby—but it’s clear that he’s following her lead, both with how they grieve and with exploring the island. But instead of trying to help him, Nadine abandons him: slipping under the water, striding to the bar at a local watering hole to down shots, and dancing at the bonfire. She puts water and music, and fire between them so they won’t have to speak about what happened.

Complicating things is Myron (Sam Dillon), another young white person who might as well be the opposite of Nadine: he lives in a shack without a shower and with a mother who doesn’t return his calls; he dreams of making it big off the island, but they obviously will never materialize. He’s like a local stray dog, too-thin and begging at various tables for scraps. Roy gladly brings him under his wing, hiring Myron to help take care of the boat when Nadine and Lewis go fishing. Myron is immediately taken with Nadine: her looks, yes, but also the idyllic life that marrying her must be. (Clearly, his own dreams are masking her reality.)

And while Roy would be no help in hooking up Myron with his pseudo-daughter, Doughboy completely recognizes the naked hunger in Myron’s eyes. But when Myron tentatively admits to ambitious plans like a GED, Doughboy shoots him down—it’s not an education he needs; it’s capital. “Women like resourceful,” he tells the hopelessly naïve boy, bringing him into his questionable enterprise. Sandler spent at least part of his adolescence growing up in the Bahamas; you have to wonder who he is more like, Nadine or Myron.

I found myself disappointed that more of the film didn’t focus on its second type of live cargo: the Haitian immigrants, turning over all of their money, trust, and lives for the hope of a better home. We know more about Roy and Doughboy’s rivalry than we do about the people (often reduced to little more than floating bodies) who brought Doughboy up to Roy’s level of power.

But perhaps such omissions in the narrative are intentional. Perhaps we’re meant to be the outsiders, peering in to the roiling waves without a clear sense of what’s happening just beneath the surface.

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4 out of 5