The beginning scenes of El Último Balsero (The Last Rafter), filmed in the emerald waters of the Florida Straits, demand immediate attention. It's there that main character, Ernesto (Héctor Medina), arrives in Miami in a tiny raft in 2016—just as President Barack Obama ends the "wet foot, dry foot" policy in an effort to improve diplomatic relations with the Cuban government. The longstanding legislation allowed that Cubans, as long as even a single toe touched American soil, be allowed to pursue residency a year later.
Directors Carlos Rafael Betancourt and Oscar Ernesto Ortega get the story going quickly as Ernesto navigates the painful and terrifying realities of a brand new immigrant. He comes to the US just as the country is beginning to navigate the Trump presidency. In the span of just a few days, Ernesto experiences homelessness and racism, and the frustration and disappointment of not having a way to become a resident. He also confronts a capitalist system that seemingly doesn't want him unless he's able to perform backbreaking and dangerous labor for pennies.
It's a far cry from home where Ernesto worked as a professor of philosophy at the University of Havana, but he's looking for his gay father, who left the country years before to escape the work camps forced on LGBTQ people by the Revolution.
Ernesto immediately meets Lenin (Chaz Mena), a queer Cuban man who, it turns out, knew Ernesto's father well. Lenin eventually reveals that Ernesto's father is already dead and that he only had a son from a forced sexual relationship.
Betancourt and Ortega take viewers with Ernesto as he traverses the multilayered city of Miami: judgment from Cubans who emigrated years before, the dangerous work forced on immigrants, as well as the colors, protests, coladas, domino games and entrancing salsa music that make up the multicultural city.
By the end, it's easy to root for Ernesto to work it out with his love interest and find a place in 2016 America. The last scenes hint at a rough road ahead for the curly-haired, thoughtful philosopher, as he finds his way between where he can never return and a future where he might never hold his own American passport.
+ Captures the multicultural yet gritty essence of Miami
– Confusing subtitles
El Ultimo Balsero
Directed by Betancourt and Ortega
With Medina and Mena
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, NR, 89 min.