Una Noche is the impressive directorial debut of NYU alum Lucy Mulloy. Spike Lee -whose Production Grant Award was given to Mulloy back in January of 2010 – mentored the filmmaker, who also won the Best Director Award when the film (along with awards for Best Actor and Best Cinematography) premiered stateside at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. 

While Una Noche is certainly not a film which sets out to deliver a socially conscious message, or poses as a cinematic medium to carry out an anti-communist political agenda, the indie drama is – understatedly grim in its realism – a penetrating and searing glimpse into the daily life of disempowered, oppressed people in the Caribbean island of Cuba. 

Upon first impressions from clips and previews of the film, it would be easy to disregard – behind the picturesque city and seascapes – the very real and constant perils in the daily lives of these seemingly unburdened main characters, which are bestowed with much charm, youth and vigor. 

Elio and his twin sister Lila, played by newcomers Javier Nunez Florian and Anailin de la Rua de la Torre, share a profound bond. Lila, who narrates in retrospective throughout the film, struggles to fit in a world without the comfort and reassurance of her twin brother. She is bullied by a group of girls, who tease her about body hair, furthering fueling her teenage angst and insecurities about her blooming sexuality.

To Lila’s chagrin, Elio has been spending less time with her and is more preoccupied in his secret dealings with with his new friend Raul (Dariel Arrechaga), whom he works with in the kitchen at a tourists’ casino. 

Unbeknownst to Lila, Raul has convinced Elio into plotting an unlikely escape from the island. Raul sees no other choice but to flee the poverty and misery he’s surrounded by; his mother is sick with AIDS, and also a prostitute. By any means necessary, Raul must hustle and barter for supplies in the underground market and materials to build a raft to set sail, after he makes sure he gets his mother the medicine she’s in dire need of. 

For much of the film, these youngsters, especially Raul, are in fight or fight mode, do or die. They don’t dwell on their circumstances, and although Elio is reluctant of leaving his sister behind, he finally decides to team up with Raul in the hustle for very scarce supplies: a motor, glucose for bodily sustenance during the journey. It’s 90 miles from Havana to Miami, and it’s not until – after his sister finds out about their plans and decides to set sail with them – the three naïve teens are on-board that flimsy raft, that fear and uncertainly really sets in. 

What’s so eerily realistic is how these teens carry themselves as such; they operate on adrenaline and are driven by their instincts; their playful banter, Raul’s flirtation with Lila; hopes and excitement abound, along with their new sense of kinship and attachment amongst all three, who must now cling to each other to survive. And now, they also sense the real magnitude of danger they face, coupled by the very real threats in these circumstances. 

This seemingly reckless plan isn’t given too much thought or consideration; they must risk it all. However, through most of the film you are a witness to their predicaments. Before leaving, Raul became a fugitive of the law for assaulting a foreigner. The streets are ridden with prostitution; resources are scarce; there’s police brutality, political oppression; a man sings his sorrows away: his daughter has left the country with a tourist to never be seen or heard of again. 

It’s a reality of many Cubans that many Tourists – which, by the way (couldn’t help to think the Jay-Z and Beyonce‘s visit fiasco), fuel this oppressive economy – seem oblivious to. It’s very interesting and admirable how Mulloy subtly, yet poignantly incorporates these elements into her compelling and gritty feature debut, capturing the very essence of a culture and its people; she’s certainly a filmmaker to be on the lookout for.