“This film has the texture of being Latino without it being overt,” says Puerto Rican filmmaker Kristian Mercado of his feature debut, If You Were the Last. “It’s a fun rom-com. It’s weird, it’s whimsical. There’s a lot of colors and there’s salsa and dance and chickens and an altar.”
In addition to those aesthetic and content nods, the film, which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, focuses on the most Latino (and universal) of themes: love. The central conflict centers on whether its two protagonists Jane (Zoë Chao) and Adam (Anthony Mackie) should sleep together. Being astronauts adrift in space and alone, with little to no hope of rescue, what else is there to do?
The film opens with a handmade stoner aesthetic, featuring ’80s computers, old-school animation, and cozy interior design. Mercado drops the audience in this “funky-ass spaceship (where) the rules are weird but it’s fun and joyful.”
Some reviewers have cited budgetary limitations as the reason behind these visual choices, but Mercado has a different explanation. For him, the childlike set is meant to evoke a sense of creativity and vulnerability. He likens it to when, as a kid, “you’re making someone a Valentine card. You get construction paper and glue and sparkles and all this other stuff. You’re writing by hand and you put all this effort into it. And then you go out and you give it to somebody, and you’re like, ‘Please, please feel this.’ There’s a vulnerability in that. The aesthetic is trying to tap into that.’
There’s an openness and earnestness at the heart of the film that is much more poignant than its sex-comedy styling implies. “I am a believer, I believe in things,” Mercado says. “The world is cynical and I like to try to offset that as much as I can. I’m a believer in truth (and) I think love is a truth of the universe.”
This focus on truth means the film is just as invested in building the magic-filled cocoon of its potential lovers as it is in popping it. Indeed, If You Were the Last takes an unexpected turn at the halfway mark, allowing a break from its own whimsy that serves to reaffirm how special and transformative love can be.
In this way, If You Were the Last defies genre, which is part of what attracted Mercado to the project.
“I like tonal shifts. I like genre-bending… I like mixed media because it represents a lot of how we (Puerto Ricans) mix in so many different ways that are hard to describe to people. But I think if you look at a Puerto Rican family, you see so many shades of Puerto Ricans. It’s never a question, it just simply is,” he explains. “When I look at the film, I look at it that way, where its genre and visuals can blend. It’s a sci-fi rom-com, a conversation about love, and there’s a little stoner comedy. But they all somehow don’t fight each other. They all (form) this interesting tapestry.”
And that tapestry was compelling enough that when I finished the film, I immediately wanted to watch it again, this time with my partner. I found myself contemplating how fulfilling and beautiful love can be.
For his part, Mercado is excited to share the film with the SXSW community and then the world, hoping its success brings more opportunities.
“I hope my career continues to go in that direction where I can make bold choices and decisions,” he says. “And I hope that it also paves the way for other filmmakers that are coming up. I want to see more Latino filmmakers being able to make those kinds of radical choices and not be questioned for it and maybe even respected for their choices.”
“We shouldn’t be defined solely by our identity, and we should be allowed and given opportunities to do things that are really outside the box,” Mercado adds. “This film is a rare instance of that. It doesn’t happen that often, I don’t think, especially with U.S.-born Latinos. They tend to have a harder time getting in. And, you know, Puerto Rico is a complicated place, because there’s not a lot of incentivizing of the local film community, and our film language sometimes isn’t valued.”
With such hurdles, it’s particularly impressive that Mercado was able to bring his whole heart to If You Were the Last, not to mention his singular worldview.
The film is currently seeking distribution to bring its treatise on love to a wider audience.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade
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