Albanians seem to be an under-represented bunch within western cinema. Indeed, much of the Balkan Peninsula seems to be struggling to find its voice upon mainstream English-language cinema screens with capable actors being pushed to the margins and regrettable stereotyping (see Hostel) doing little to discourage the image of jewellery-wearing maniacs or bit-part gangsters.

Interesting then to see Malik Bader’s Cash Only shed some light on this marginalised group and push its Albanian characters to the fore. With a script written by Nickola Shreli, himself of Albanian descent, what we get is rare examination of an insular minority at the fringes of American society. As Shreli was quick to point out following the film’s screening, Albanians are a relatively recent addition to the fabric of life stateside and Cash Only succeeds in taking its story into territory that feels somewhat unknown.

The mechanics of the script are recognisable as a fairly standard race against time to drum up cash or face the consequences. It’s the dressing and the perceived authenticities that elevate this to some extent. The rituals and the foibles of its Albanian characters and a recognisably flawed central character elevate the material, giving an impression of legitimacy and credibility.

Hapless, and to a large extent useless, landlord Elvis (Shreli) is in deep with a local ne’er-do-well, behind on his daughter’s tuition fees and coming to terms with the loss of his wife. He’s not helped by his tenants who are, to a man, even more disreputable than he and behind on their own payments. Staring down the barrel of a ten grand debt, he evicts one of his renters, a prostitute with links to a local gang, with the idea of ripping off a stash of her money he has chanced upon. This buys him time with his own creditors but brings his tenant’s connections into play and soon enough his daughter is kidnapped and he has a little less than a day to acquire a mountain of cash should he ever wish to see her again.

The kidnapped daughter shtick doesn’t break a huge amount of new ground, but the patchwork of little details, of Albanian daily life against the bleak backdrop of Detroit and the ever-reliable looming Catholic guilt, keep this interesting. Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is its protagonist: a flawed man mockingly compared to Christ in the movie’s final act, but who is certainly no saint. It would be simple to present Elvis as a good man wronged, but Shreli’s script has him drinking, gambling, perving on his tenants and dejectedly rutting with the fiancé of a friend. He’s something of a scumbag himself, but those inconsistencies help to instil a sense of humanity into the character and the film, rather than detract from them.

As it enters its final movement, the film begins to tip into sadistic violence and there’s a worry that what has previously been a taut character piece, will cash in for exploitative shocks. But there seems to be honesty to the material – Shreli hinted it was, in part, based on his own experiences – and that provides some feeling of urgency and an authenticity that keeps its story feeling relevant.

Director: Malik Bader
Writer: Nickola Shreli
Stars: Nickola Shreli, Stivi Paskoski, Danijela Stajnfeld
Runtime: 91 min
Country: USA, Albania

Film Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

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