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Rogelio Balagtas, centre, as Joshua, in a scene from Islands.Circus Zero Films

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Written and directed by Martin Edralin

Starring Rogelio Balagtas and Sheila Lotuaco

Classification N/A; 94 minutes

Opens April 12 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, April 15 in Winnipeg and Vancouver, April 29 in Mississauga and Scarborough, Ont.

Critic’s Pick

Sometimes, the smallest of movies can be radical. Take Islands, the feature debut from Canadian filmmaker Martin Edralin. Produced with a micro-budget, taking place in only a handful of locations and cast with largely untested performers, the dramedy couldn’t be any tinier.

Actually, “tiny” could be the film’s thematic through-line, too, as Edralin zeroes in on the near-solitary existence of a middle-aged man, whose lonely life is slowly opened up through the smallest of gestures. But there are great things to be found in little packages, and Islands offers tremendous evidence that, if Edralin might ever be given more than the bare minimum of resources, the director will create something gigantic.

Shot almost exclusively in Tagalog, Islands focuses on Filipino immigrant Joshua (Rogelio Balagtas), a painfully introverted fortysomething janitor who has sacrificed personal and professional goals to care for his aging parents in suburban Toronto. After his mother passes away, Joshua and his father, Reynaldo (Esteban Comilang), are left to fend for themselves – practically speaking, this means lots of takeout food – until Joshua’s cousin Marisol (Sheila Lotuaco) arrives from Kuwait to help.

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Martin Edralin’s film moves with the kind of carefully calibrated speed that is deeply impressive for a first-timer.Circus Zero Films

Suddenly, something is sparked inside of Joshua, and as his relationship with Marisol deepens – and Reynaldo proves to be more of a responsibility than anticipated – a man who has no real sense of himself must for once choose between the comfort of familiarity and the terror of change.

Alternately buoyant and heartbreaking, Edralin’s film moves with the kind of carefully calibrated speed that is deeply impressive for a first-timer. So much happens to Joshua over the course of Islands, yet also not that much. Every moment – a minor embarrassment, a brief sliver of hope – only feels momentous because Edralin has created such a relatable, alive underdog of a character. Joshua is a man who we all think we might know – perhaps someone from the periphery of our own lives – but one whose interior life we never gave much thought.

Joshua’s richness as a character, though, may have delivered less of an impact if not for Balagtas. With just a short film to his name prior to joining Islands, the Winnipeg actor delivers an honest, stripped-down performance so real that it seems lifted from a documentary. Of course, the actor’s virtual anonymity helps, but there is a deliberate, professional control to Balagtas’ work here that bears the hallmark of a gifted actor.

Initially, Edralin was set to film Islands in the Philippines. But then a slight shift in Telefilm’s language policy –finally, the organization’s micro-budget program was rebooted to accept productions beyond the usual English-, French- and Indigenous-language restrictions – allowed the filmmaker to rewrite and refocus his tale to deliver a uniquely Canadian story. A part of that Canadian uniqueness being that he had just 22 days to shoot. With the release of Islands, here is hoping that Edralin is afforded more opportunities – and more filming days – to tell whatever Canadian story he wants to next.

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