Sand Dollars / Dólares de arena

Meet Noeli, a beautiful young Black woman from the Dominican Republic. By day she spends time on the beach with rich white tourists, flirting and angling for gifts which she promptly resells. The nights she spends dancing up a storm in clubs with her boyfriend—or, in a remote little hotel with one very special tourist. Anne, a much older white French woman has been visiting the country on and off for years, and has fallen in love with Noeli. Noeli is quite fond of Anne too, but keeps her distance emotionally, and isn’t above lying and asking for money.

It’s a fascinating look at the intersections of race, class, gender, colonialism and unequal relationships. Noeli may seem mercenary and heartless, but she’s doing what she can to survive and support her boyfriend who can’t seem to find a job. Besides, you could say she’s only taking a little money from people who already have too much. It’s not really clear what Anne is looking for; she does love Noeli, but it’s a blind and naive love. She doesn’t care to know anything about Noeli’s life away from her, and though her Spanish is good she hasn’t tried to integrate in Dominican society at all. She adores the country, the scenery, the ocean to swim in, but doesn’t know anything about the details. I think, at least at first (and even now, to an extent) Noeli is just part of that scenery, just a piece she could enjoy up close.

Which is still pretty benign compared to some. Halfway through the movie she discover Noeli has a boyfriend and breaks up with her. She’s devastated, but fortunately gets support from some of her rich jet-setting pals. It was our first look at Anne in her own world, and it’s quite a revelation. She’s more talkative, more confident, smiles a lot more. She’s free to talk to anyone about anything, even her own affairs, and trust nobody will judge her—mostly because they’ve seen it all too. But as lovely and open-minded and cosmopolitan as these folks are, they don’t really think about anybody outside their world. We overhear one guy talking about the economics of resource extraction in the Dominican Republic. Though he has also enjoyed individual locals over the years, the country as a whole is just numbers to him and he doesn’t even conceive of what it means to be the one cutting down sugar canes or burning down fields and still have to feel grateful because there are just no other jobs available—as Noeli’s boyfriend briefly did.

Noeli and Anne get back together, and Anne starts to seriously talk about bringing Noeli to visit Paris—with the hope, maybe, of making it a permanent arrangement. Noeli is torn. She does enjoy shopping for clothes, but she’s not looking forward to experiencing this whole “winter” thing, plus she would lose everything she knows.

She makes a decision: one morning while Anne still sleeps, she steals as much cash as she can, and slips away with her boyfriend.

So… a few thoughts:

This is a movie adaptation of a book: Jean-Noël Pancrazi’s Les Dollars des sables. It’s a far better one than last year’s Salvation Army, but the editing is still a bit choppy in parts, and Noeli is a bit of a cipher. That’s possibly intentional: she’s been leading a double life, keeping secrets from both her loved ones, but we the audience shouldn’t be left wondering what makes her tick.

The ending was quite abrupt too, though again, not nearly as bad as Salvation Army’s. I wish we’d seen more of Noeli’s inner conflict, but in hindsight she made the best decision she could—or maybe the least bad one. Either way she’d lose people and cause a lot of pain, but it’s not clear what she would gain from moving to France. Medical care, education and opportunities for her unborn child? Maybe, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. But Noeli herself would be cut off from her community, entirely dependent on Anne for everything. I don’t remember hearing her speak French, so what kind of job could she even get? She’d be a kept woman, whose only companionship would be Anne’s rich peers and their kept men/women.

This movie strikes me as somewhat similar to Xenia; though the people of the Dominican Republic aren’t migrants, the end result isn’t too different since they are kept largely poor and unemployed by economic forces beyond their control.

Finally, what does the title refer to? We never see or hear about any actual sand dollars. The consensus, based on a couple of Twitter conversations, is that “sand dollar” is local slang for money spent by tourists, who mostly hang around the beaches. Any thoughts?