Film Review: ‘Staff Only’

Variety | 3/22/2019 | Jessica Kiang
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Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather like the employees’ section of their resort hotel that is quarantined from the guests’ domain by a doorway marked “Staff Only.”

Catalan director Neus Ballús, in her calm, intelligent second feature after 2013’s docudrama “The Plague,” allows Marta’s coming of age to sensitively parallel, in unexpected ways, a clear-eyed critique of tourism in post-colonial regions. The film is mediated through a white Westerner’s experience rather than that of a local, but it is no white-savior narrative; if anything, it is a gentle dismantling of that myth from the inside, revealing the myopia and self-deluding nature of middle-class white package-tourism in Africa. Unlike her protagonist, Ballús doesn’t mistake good intentions for an intimate understanding of an experience that is not hers to claim.

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The form of the movie is generally realist, aided by naturalistic photography from DP Diego Dussuel and impressively unforced performances from the largely first-timer cast. An exception is the shaky-low grade video footage of the family that punctuates the film, shot by local guide and aspiring filmmaker Khouma (Diomaye A. Ngom). Khouma is compiling the footage into a souvenir video that Manel can purchase as a memento of their safaris, bingo nights and trips into the desert to participate in tribal dances — all of which Marta endures only reluctantly, one mutinous eye-roll away from all-out rebellion.

Rebellion - Flirtation - Khouma - Friendship - Hotel

Rebellion does eventually happen. She strikes up a flirtation with Khouma and a friendship with hotel maid Aissatou (Madeleine C. Ndong) in direct...
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