Geraldine Chaplin and Yanet Mojica in Sand Dollars (Breaking Glass Pictures)

Geraldine Chaplin and Yanet Mojica in Sand Dollars (Breaking Glass Pictures)

The Dominican Republic’s Oscar submission for best foreign language film is an intriguing and somber look at life on the island. Set against the beautiful Caribbean backdrop, Sand Dollars explores love and money and sex tourism, while juxtaposing those who choose to take holidays on these sandy shores and those who call the island home, growing up in poverty.

Noeli (Yanet Mojica), a young Dominican woman, and her boyfriend, Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), are always looking for ways to exploit the tourists that frequent the nearby beach. She works in prostitution and has one particularly steady client, an older French woman, Anne (Geraldine Chaplin). While Noeli is just looking for enough cash to live on, the “old lady,” as Noeli and Yeremi refer to her, has much stronger feelings. Though they have an economic arrangement, Anne treats Noeli like a dear lover. Noeli, on the other hand, hides her relationship with Yeremi from Anne, referring to him as her brother, for fear of Anne’s jealousy. Despite Noeli’s ambivalence toward Anne, she keeps her happy for the money, but their interactions becomes more and more complex as each wishes for something completely different out of their connection.

Sand Dollars does not place focus on the lesbian relationship, instead it makes this a universally compassionate story of love and power. Neither Anne nor Noeli is portrayed as villainous. Instead directors Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán empathetically depict both sides of the story. The script is underwritten, but not to the film’s detriment. The audience learns a bit of Noeli’s inner thoughts, but Anne’s backstory remains purposefully vague. She has a son and grandchildren back in France, but how she came to spend so much time in the Dominican Republic is unclear. Sand Dollars’ vagueness on backstory forces the audience to confront the challenging bond between the two women head-on.

While Anne is given power over Noeli by her wealth, her love for the 20-ish woman makes her vulnerable. Noeli, though not in love with Anne, is somewhat fond of her, though more importantly, she’s completely reliant on her financially. She’s also intrigued by the smartphones and fancy clothing that come with the arrangement. The young woman has the chance to go from struggling islander to becoming a tourist herself, and that transition is not lost on her.

The film is completely carried by the performances. Mojica plays Noeli with intense ambivalence, and Chaplin’s Anne is heartbreaking and pitiful. Set against the country’s beautiful scenery, the two characters wander in and out of the water and dance clubs, each searching for some kind of escape. The problem is their visions of freedom do not match.

Written and Directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, based on the novel Les Dollars des Sables by Jean-Noel Pancrazi
Produced by Laura Amelia Guzman, Israel Cardenas, Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli, Matias Roveda, and Pablo Cruz
Released by Breaking Glass Pictures
Spanish, English, French with English subtitles
Dominican Republic/Mexico/Argentina. 84 min. Not rated
With Geraldine Chaplin, Yanet Mojica, and Ricardo Ariel Toribio