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Beacon demands absolute submission from the viewer. Yes, every movie inherently necessitates this but in a period where cinema halls have a sad history of less attendance for diverse reasons like bad manners at the movies, and there is a lot of distractions at home; the once unquestioned relationship between a film and its audience has now become extinct. The reason why it is painful is that Roxy Shih’s shipwreck tale which premieres at the 2024 Tribeca Festival is an atmospheric thriller worth total immersion.

Young sailor Emily (Goldani Telles) sets sail on this solo voyage to circumnavigate the world with Beacon featuring an incredible pair of actors played by Demián Bichir and Julia Goldani Telles. This has been in her family for years and would be seen as an obvious choice considering she just lost his father. Unfortunately, while sailing along the coastal waters of South America, there is a violent storm that breaks out leading to her ship being engulfed by giant waves. Emily wakes up in pain wearing a trail of fresh stitches on her thigh after having been disoriented – when she finds herself alone on a deserted island inside what used to be a nice cabin.

Ismael (Bichir), who looks like he has weathered many storms, is Emily’s savior; he lives alone on the island and operates its lighthouse. Recovering her strength completely takes time but outside, the storm still rages such that communication with those on the mainland – via radio wave technology – becomes impossible. However trustworthy Ismael may seem to be, Emily has no other option than trust him because he genuinely cares about her even though there are times when he comes off as overprotective or mysterious. Moreover, strange things happening around make Emily believe that she isn’t secure here.

Part of what makes Beacon so great is its casting choices that fit together perfectly and heighten each other’s performances. In the role of Emily, Goldani Telles is amazing to watch as she moves delicately through her character’s crisis. There is a mounting desperation, on one hand – how to escape the pain of her father’s death, survive on the island, discover what Ismael is hiding and, most importantly, prevent herself from losing who she truly is in the process – that may end up dooming her. Nevertheless, there is a resoluteness with which she takes back control over herself and her circumstances and changes things for better. Even when Vanessa lies down defeated; there was no urge to ever write her off.

As Ismael however, Bichir creates an incredibly intricate character opposite Goladni Telles. The actor seems to have enjoyed having such a complex role because it shows in his performance that he has been through so much physically and emotionally while spending time at sea or living alone on this island. Bichir’s acting pushes us beyond our humanity when we have stayed out too long in the storm but also strips us down deep (it is clear that he feels responsible enough to go back with Emily). It is a great scene-stealing performance.

Of course, credit must also be given to the screenwriter Julio Rojas. Beacon’s screenplay has taken us on a terrain where nature and even humanity are no match for themselves. The script drags like a rope that is winding up all through; the tension taut and about to break at any moment. It is not easy to make a story that is so emotionally charged between just two characters without resorting to clichés or short-cuts, but Rojas has come up with a narrative that will keep you guessing.

Where Beacon stumbles somewhat, however, is in its inclusion of myths. Being an eternal seaman, Ismael clings strongly to some traditions (or superstitions depending how you see it) of the sea such as lighting candles at night to keep away sirens and preventing Emily from combing her hair (which is said to attract sirens). But actually an alternative storyline comes into existence even defining Emily as a siren (the wound on her stomach isn’t a wound but rather scale growth).

To be sure, these mythical detours are certainly fascinating and they place Beacon squarely in liminal space horror realms especially when one considers that the island itself lies somewhere between the human world and nature. However, these aspects are flimsy compared with some attention being paid towards Emily and Ismael’s relations.

In fact, Beacon shines because of its constant ebb-and-flow between them: both Emily and Ismael play hero versus villain in this tale — sometimes one or another depending on what moment you are looking at them through. This emotional shape-shifting marks Shih out as one to watch among filmmakers. What she has here is not much – a cottage, a light-house and two actors – but she and Daphne Qin Wu who was responsible for cinematography have shown that less can be more when it comes down to filmmaking by plumbing the deepest darkest depths of our everyday human existence and proving that while the weather rages outside, it is the storms inside us which can tear us apart.

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