Review by Sean Boelman
The tragic true story behind Reefa is one that deserves to be seen by audiences on a large scale, but the way in which filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch presents it is somewhat questionable. Occasionally moving but more frequently contrived, this attempt to explore topical themes instead feels like a paint-by-numbers biopic.
The film tells the story of Colombian immigrant and artist Israel “Reefa” Hernandez, as his pursuit of artistic expression leads him down paths of love and danger. There is no denying the importance of Hernandez’s story, but the first hour of the movie is spent slowly building to the third act, which is what demands to be seen.
Perhaps the biggest issue with this film is that it doesn’t seem to trust the audience enough to sympathize with the characters. Because Dornbusch’s script tries to cram an entire coming-of-age arc into an hour of runtime, the movie not only feels rushed, it also feels artificial despite being based on a true story.
There are also some interesting decisions made in the film in regards to perspective. The choice to position Hernandez’s white girlfriend as one of the main characters as opposed to his immigrant family and friends is an odd one. Thankfully, a major course correction happens before the movie gets into the hard-hitting material, but by that point, audiences should have already recognized the pandering.
This story has the potential to have such a strong message about racism, police brutality, and xenophobia, but Dornbusch pulls way too many of her punches. Perhaps in an attempt to remain respectful, the filmmaker seems unwilling to get too political with her script, opting for little more than fleeting references to the relevant issues.
Tyler Dean Flores gives an exceptional performance in his leading role. In fact, the subtlety and humanity that he is able to bring to the character almost feels out-of-place in a film that otherwise deals pretty heavily in sentimentality. The supporting turns aren’t as strong, but Flores is surprisingly able to carry the movie on his own.
The film is much better-made than a majority of independent biopics, largely thanks to the focus that it has on Hernandez’s art. There are some moments that are a bit heavy-handed with the score and execution, but Dornbusch manages to maintain an overall feeling of tastefulness to her movie, even in the more difficult moments.
Reefa works a lot better than one would expect it to, but the idea of making a film like this out of such a story is still problematic. If nothing else, the movie serves to introduce us to Tyler Dean Flores, who is a star waiting to happen.
Reefa is now in theaters and on VOD.