A decidedly unromantic Havana is the hostile home two close friends—and, eventually, one of their sisters—attempt to escape for Miami shores in Una Noche. Depicted by writer-director Lucy Mulloy as a grimy, sweaty locale where people do little more than screw, steal, and evade the police, Cuba comes off as a place of squalid desperation and angst in this inspired-by-true-events tale, in which Javier Núñez Florián’s hotel kitchen worker conspires with co-worker and friend Dariel Arrechaga to build a raft and flee the country for America. Given his relatively happy home life, especially with sister Anailín De La Rúa De La Torre (whose character is the voiceover of the film, with Aris Mejias providing the narration), Florián’s reasons for leaving stem mostly from his closeted romantic feelings for Arrechaga, a brazen ladies’ man determined to ditch his HIV-infected prostitute mother—whose medicine he procures through wheeling and dealing—and find his long-lost father in Miami.
Mejias’ narration exudes a plaintive anxiety about abandonment that’s compounded by a fear of the open ocean, but her endless expository commentary seems mainly intent on transmitting information that the narrative proper has no time to properly convey, so busy is it racing forward at breakneck speed toward its high-seas last act. Mulloy’s pacing is frantic, as is her handheld camerawork, giving the film a restless energy that’s at once well attuned to the characters’ states of mind and circumstances—which soon involve fleeing law enforcement—and yet results in characterizations that feel like they’ve been sketched rather than fully drawn. That’s also true of her portrait of the relationship between Cubans and tourists, who in fleeting glimpses are shown as blond-haired, blue-eyed ciphers apparently as unhappy as the locals about being in Cuba.
Throughout, Una Noche’s details—an old man singing as he staggers down the street, young boys wasting away their days playfully leaping into the water—feel authentic. Unfortunately, those sights are so quickly glimpsed that they barely register in any meaningful or lasting way. As such, they’re emblematic of a film that spends scant time fleshing out any various elements, including the homophobia swirling around Arrechaga and Florián, the disconnect between refugee fantasies and realities, and the recurring, undeveloped suggestion—made most bluntly during a finale in which the trio find themselves in dire straights on a raft surrounded by sharks—that, in a volatile and unsafe country like Cuba, puberty and sex lead only to anger, violence, and mortal danger.