Hurricane Maria was a massive Category 5 storm that made landfall in September 2017 and was responsible for catastrophic damage and loss of life. In Puerto Rico alone at least 3,000 people died, there was an estimated $95 billion in damage, 80% of its agriculture was destroyed and much of the commonwealth’s economy was left mostly in ruin.
In director Charles McDougall’s “Ana”, post-Maria Puerto Rico offers a compelling setting and is a key player throughout the film. Its residents struggle to get by any way they can while corrupt congressmen exploit the crisis for political gain. To add an even uglier layer, American mainland con-artists swoop in to swindle gullible locals desperate for some semblance of hope. The movie was shot entirely in Puerto Rico by a Puerto Rican crew who capture not just the island’s hardships but also its immense and diverse beauty. Shot after shot is brimming with local character and flavor.
Slightly subverting the rich visual portrayal of Puerto Rico is the story itself, a tender little drama with a very measured comedic sensibility. Andy Garcia plays Rafa, a struggling used car salesman in San Juan who discovers 11-year-old Ana sleeping in one of the vehicles on his lot. She’s played by Dafne Keen, the mutant youngster from 2017’s “Logan”. Ana had slipped away as her mother was being arrested and now has no place to go.
You know pretty quickly how things are going to go: Ana will take a liking to Rafa, he will push back but eventually warm up, and the two will develop a heart-warming relationship. That’s essentially what happens here. But McDougall and writer Chris Cole make it all about the journey these two take, both individually and as friends. Much like the island itself, Ana and Rafa’s lives are troubled yet they navigate their circumstances the best they can.
The two embark on a road trip of sorts to find someone to take care of Ana but also to drum up $5000 after Rafa runs up a gambling debt with a shady local shark (Ramon Franco). As the odd couple drives Rafa’s beat-up Lincoln TownCar across the island we get some pretty good laughs in large part thanks to Garcia and Keen’s sweet chemistry. But again what sets the film apart is Puerto Rico itself, always in the background slyly expressing some level of social and economic commentary through the camera’s lens.
The movie does hit a speed bump in the second half when a popular local church is introduced into the story. It’s led by the charismatic Pastor Helen (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a Miami-based prosperity preacher who peddles false hope for profit. While this does take the story into some interesting directions, it also causes it to lose a touch of its intimacy and parts of it gets a little far-fetched. But the movie does get back on track on its way to a warm and pleasing conclusion.
Releasing your film’s first trailer and then one week later dropping the movie straight to streaming doesn’t do much for expectations. But “Ana” turns out to be a surprisingly sweet and heartfelt movie. It’s full of warmth and its humor operates at just the right temperature. Best of all, the steady visual portrayal of Puerto Rico is full of character and beauty while also having some thoughtful and important things to say. That’s the piece that separates “Ana” from other movies like it.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS