Lila (Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre) and Elio (Javier Núñez Florián) are inseparable fraternal twins living in Havana. Despite the dire reality of life on the island, the siblings are jubilant when they’re together: Their love and affection serves as a shield against the depressing squalor around them.
But as Una noche (One Night) opens, the pair has started to grow apart. Lila, who is on the cusp of puberty, is bullied by mean girls who berate her and call her ugly. Elio, who works in the kitchen of a hotel, is secretly making a plan with his friend Raul (Daniel Arrechaga) to flee Cuba by raft and head for Miami.
In her debut feature, writer-director Lucy Molloy uses fluid camerawork and a fast pace to capture the effervescent zeal energy of her teenage protagonists. The movie avoids overt political commentary, opting instead to focus on the crumbling walls of the character’s homes and the indignities they must endure to keep their low-paying jobs. In Una noche, Havana comes across as a ruined paradise, with hungry dogs, shady hustlers and overzealous hookers roaming the streets. When Raul sits on the ledge of a rooftop and peers down at the city, it looks like an uninhabitable, bombed-out war zone where people must somehow find a way to get by.
Although the two friends have been carefully taking their time to gather the materials to build their vessel, they are suddenly forced to hurry after an accident involving a tourist sends the authorities chasing after Raul. In its second half, Una noche speeds up considerably, mirroring the frantic desperation of the boys to escape the island before Raul is arrested. And when Lila finds out her brother intends to leave without her, she attempts to sabotage their plan. When her efforts fail, she decides to go with them instead.
Una noche made news at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival when de la Torre and Florián, who became a couple during filming, disappeared after a layover in Miami en route to the movie’s New York premiere and sought political asylum (they currently live in Las Vegas). This case of life imitating art gives the movie an added layer of poignancy that counterbalances some of the contrived events that take place during the perilous journey that forms the last third of the film. The performances in Una noche are raw and powerful, if occasionally wobbly (none of the three leads were professional actors). Arrechaga is particularly good as the brooding, handsome boy who starts to lose all hope, beaten down by the constant calamities that befall him. Molloy occasionally goes overboard with her realistic approach to storytelling (there’s a sex scene that is way more graphic than it needed to be), but mostly Una noche thrums with the vibrant energy of restless youth taking their fates into their own hands, for better or worse.