Albania, US / 90 minutes / color / Bardha, “Nickname”, Filmbuff Dir: Malik Bader Pr: Ele Bardha, Nickola Shreli Scr: Nickola Shreli Cine: Christos Moisides Cast: Nickola Shreli, Stivi Paskoski, Danijela Stajnfeld, Herion Mustafaraj, Maia Noni, Christian “Trick Trick” Mathis, Ava Simony, Myles Stephens, Malik Bader, Ele Bardha, Djelina Berishaj, Arian Camaj, Daniel Ross, Nick Camaj, Gjek Lukaj, Janae Stinson, Brandon Trammer, Saman Samona.
Nickola Shreli as Elvis.
I’m not sure if this is the only Albania/US coproduction ever made, but certainly that’s not an attribute you frequently encounter in a movie. Unsurprisingly, some of the dialogue is in (subtitled) Albanian. The movie’s set within Detroit’s Albanian community.
Our central character is Elvis “Visi” Martini (Shreli), an Armenian–American with something of the Vin Diesel about him. Two years ago he suffered a family tragedy. Although it was never proved against him in a court of law, he set fire to his home for the insurance, little realizing his beloved wife had come home early from work and was napping upstairs. Now a single parent, he raises improbably pretty but video-game-addicted daughter Lena (Simony), supporting them by renting out apartments in the building he bought with the insurance money.
Danijela Stajinfeld as Blerta.
But most of the tenants are recalcitrant in paying the rent, the bank’s threatening to foreclose on the mortgage, and local kingpin Deda (Nick Camaj) wants repayment of the $10,000 he lent Elvis a while back.
Through his spycams, Elvis discovers that one of his tenants, hooker Rolexa (Noni), has a large stash of money stowed away in the apartment she shares with cute son Ed (Stephens). As she’s three months behind in her rent and tells him to go screw himself (I euphemize) any time he asks for it, he feels justified in evicting her. He doesn’t feel quite so justified in seizing her stash of dough but does so anyway, using it to pay off some of his most immediate debts.
Maia Noni as Rolexa.
Little does he know—although we could have guessed—that the money isn’t Rolexa’s. It really belongs to the psychopathically sadistic local Mr. Big, Nino (Paskoski), who’ll do whatever’s necessary to get it back, including, if need be, feeding Elvis’s daughter Lena to Nino’s collection of savage fighting pit bills . . .
Malik Bader as Kush.
As you’ll have guessed from the above, the reason this indie crime drama is worth watching doesn’t derive from its originality of plot. It gets just about everything else right, though, from production standards through cinematography to screenplay and performances; the latter are almost without exception excellent, with some of them being better than that.
Nick Kamaj as Deda.
The movie’s primarily a study in character—the character of Elvis in particular but also of those with whom he interacts, notably the eccentric tenants, and even that of the community and neighborhood in which he lives.
Elvis is a complicated individual, one of those whom the judicial system would likely dismiss offhand as a petty (and sometimes not so petty) criminal. And, yes, that description is accurate. But he’s a great deal more. He’s someone who’s genuinely trying to do the right thing a lot of the time, especially as it relates to the welfare of Lena. He gambles when he shouldn’t, behaves like an asshole when drunk, yet he’s frequently kind and caring to those around him: when he evicts Rolexa in her absence, he makes sure young Ed is looked after and fed, playing alongside Lena, until the defaulting hooker gets home. It’s just that at every turn life keeps putting obstacles—financial obstacles—in Elvis’s path, and he doesn’t have the resources to tackle them any other way but dishonestly.
Ava Simony as Lena.
Myles Stephens as Rolexa’s son Ed.
A lot of Cash Only’s humor comes from the tenants. There’s Lula (Berishaj), a brassy blonde who crossly keeps an eye on Lena when Elvis has to go out on “business.” Kush (director Bader) is an overaged hippie who farms extensive crops of specialty pot in the building’s basement, and tries to blandish Elvis into accepting rent payments in goods rather than cash. Elvis is more amenable to accepting part payment of rent in a different sort of goods from sexy Blerta (Stajnfeld), even though she’s married/affianced (it’s not clear which) to Leka (Arian Camaj), of whom Elvis is supposedly a great friend. The only tenant who pays up regularly and keeps his apartment in good nick is the unabashedly camp Chad (Ross), stalwart of an uptown gay niterie that rejoices in the name of The Male Box.
Other characters of note besides the tenants include the local cop, Pete Cantor (producer Bardha), whose loyalty is evidently to his ethnic community first, the law second; the unctuous local priest, Father Gjoni (Lukaj); and Elvis’s cousin, best friend and household fixer-upper Agroni (Mustafaraj). A subtle comparison is here and there made between Elvis’s happy toleration of all sorts and Agroni’s evidently religion-rooted, poorly concealed (albeit passive) bigotry toward gay and non-white people. It’s clear whose attitude Elvis wants Lena to inherit.
Stivi Paskoski as Dino.
There are some oddities in the credits. One of the headliners has barely a bit part while the gangster Nino—thus referred to throughout the movie—is credited as Dino.
Although in its latter stages Cash Only becomes really quite cringe-inducingly violent, its affect is far from exploitational. I came away from it feeling I’d met a whole bunch of real people and willingly involved myself in their lives. In an era when the multiplexes seem stuffed with little but comics adaptations and superhero reboots, smaller movies like Cash Only tend to get lost, and that’s a very great pity.