Granted, this may seem like a jarring comparison, but like the recent dud Phat Girlz, Heading South deals with the hot-button issue of middle-aged women rediscovering their sexuality, thanks to the efforts of muscular black men with exotic accents, whose standards of female beauty are more flexible than those of your average American dude. It's as if How Stella Got Her Groove Back suddenly resurfaced on DVD, and a couple of enterprising producers only just remembered that it was a hit and might be able to withstand a little cloning. It can't.
It may seem unfair to compare a Mo'Nique comedy with an art-house movie directed by acclaimed French filmmaker Laurent Cantet. In fact, the films could learn from each other. Phat Girlz needed more believability, while Heading South could use more personality: Combining resources, they might have gotten a groove on. But as in his international breakthrough Human Resources, Cantet demonstrates a social conscience without evincing the storytelling skill to fully convey his points to an audience.
The movie is set in the late 1970s at a resort in Haiti, situating us during the Baby Doc Duvalier era and ensuring that AIDS isn't a part of the picture yet. Cantet also uses a desaturated palette that makes the film look as if it might have been resurrected from the '70s (though some of his stylistic touches are not; we'll get to that). Three years before the story begins, Georgia native Brenda (Karen Young) had come on vacation with her husband and bought food for an impoverished local teen named Legba (Ménothy Cesar, in an impressive debut), whom she then snuck away with to have sex. "It was my first orgasm, and I was 45," she recalls. Returning solo during the summer season, she's seeking out Legba again, partly for the hot tropical lovin' and partly because she likes the idea that she might be able to somehow "save" him.
But Legba's a pro and has many other women seeking his services, chief among them regular attendee Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), who teaches at Wellesley. Initially, she takes a mildly bemused attitude toward what she sees as Brenda's naiveté toward the local sex trade, but bad feelings start to develop when they both end up wanting Legba in their beds at the same time. Meanwhile, Legba has his own problems, though we're never really clear about what they are.
At various times throughout the story, things fade to black, and a title card appears bearing the name of a main character. A monologue to the audience follows, either in voice-over or addressed directly to the camera. This is the closest we get to understanding any of the personalities involved, but it adds a note of '90s postmodernism that feels odd, as if we're suddenly on The Real World: Haiti. Brenda in particular is an odd case -- her major dilemma of falling in love with a hot sex worker is something any lonely person might relate to, yet toward the end of the movie she starts talking and acting as if she's clinically insane, somewhat out of the blue.
In the end, one gets the sense that Cantet and his cast and crew mainly wanted to get paid to make a movie on a beautiful beach in Santo Domingo.