Starting your movie with a tired cliché is never a good sign, especially when that cliché is the main character saying something along the lines of “You may be wondering how I got here.” It’s intended to intrigue you and pull you in, but the trope has become so overused that it has lost most of its effect. It’s how Chee$e begins, and while it may start off familiar, the rest of the film is anything but…
Set in a village so remote “even God must have forgotten about it,” Chee$e follows Skimma (Akil Williams), a young man who just wants to leave his Central American island and explore the world. He’s inching closer when he hits a roadblock — he might be a father due to a night of inebriation and mistakes. To raise the money he needs, both to leave the island and take care of the baby, he uses his job as a cheesemaker to become the village’s drug supplier. With the drugs hidden in cheese, he sees his plan as virtually foolproof, and it begins to pay dividends.
There are lots of elements of this film I really loved. Its excellent score incorporates diagetic sounds to enhance it, also playing with echo, frame rate and vocals. It fits in with the narrative to create a relatively psychedelic experience — you know what’s real, but there’s also a consistent sense of disconnect. We feel the way Skimma feels — though the island is homey, there’s something not quite right about life there, and the outside world feels far more enticing.
There’s also something to be said about Chee$e’s clear sense of identity. There’s no pandering to mainstream American audiences, and the patois used by most every character incorporates several different languages and slangs. Chee$e employs dynamic built-in subtitles to give audiences the full picture, and I must admit I was fascinated by many of the dialogue equivalencies.
What brings it down is the film’s noncommittal nature to its story. Does it want to be an extremely stylized story about the Caribbean drug trade, complete with commentary on police brutality; or does it want to be a warning about safe sex, and a comedy about a guy who slipped up and doesn’t really want to be a father? There are lots of engaging moments scattered throughout, but for the most part, whenever the film was focused on one story, I found myself wishing they would show us what the other characters are up to. It’s a strange dichotomy that proves the film doesn’t quite work on its own merits, and I believe most of that is owed to the film’s dismissive attitude towards a traditional story structure.
Many of the scenes in Chee$e showcase what I can only imagine being on drugs is like, and most of the time, it’s pretty fun. An animated portion is proof that the film gets stranger as it progresses, but I can appreciate its dedication, even if a lot didn’t work for me. All said and done, Chee$e is a drug trip of a film, which makes perfect sense given the subject matter.
Chee$e premiered at SXSW ‘22.