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Sujata Day’s directorial debut “Definition Please” was released to Netflix on Jan. 21 after being acquired by Ava Duvernay’s film distribution and production collective ARRAY. Starring Day alongside Ritesh Rajan, “Definition Please” is slow, subtle, and offbeat. It tells the story of Monica Chowdry, a washed-up former Scripps National Spelling Bee winner who spends most of her time painting, smoking weed, and struggling to find focus in life. She moves home to Greensburg, Pennsylvania to take care of her ailing mother and is rattled by the return of her older brother, Sonny. The three mourn the death of the family patriarch, Baba, all the while also wrestling with what it means to grow up, as they painfully recall the not so rose-colored past.
“Definition Please” is strange. Among the reasons behind its offbeat feel are that the story is small, the cast is small, and the film does not cover a lot of physical ground. The scenes are short, and the dialogue is shorter. Day wears cutoff jean shorts in almost every scene. The weather never seems to be remarkable, either. This contained, intimate focus is precisely the prowess of the film.
It is in the details that “Definition Please” excels. Day told the New York Times that her parents approved of the Bengali songs she created with composer Amanda Jones for the film. Characters eat rasgulla sweets and munch on masala-flavored Lays chips. Monica and Sonny fight with each other during the ritual of Raksha Bandhan, where the sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist in honor of the sibling bond. There’s a Hindu calendar on the bare kitchen wall. These granular details are representative of the daily, less flashy elements of the in-between within an Indian household in America: that is, a household with immigrant roots and kids trying to find their place in American life.
Day’s exploration of culture’s place in her characters’ lives, however, does not just exist in the background. She manages to reckon with themes that, if done in a more stereotypical way, might have seemed recycled. These include the pressure on first-generation American kids to be successful in the shadow of their bootstrap-pulling parents, as well as defining what success even means in the first place. “Definition Please” portrays two adults trying desperately to answer these questions, but in an environment where the stakes are lower. Monica trains middle schoolers for local spelling bees, but has also been offered a rather nondescript job in a lab in Ohio. It isn’t the classic immigrant “med-school or bust” narrative. Rather, Monica simply has to choose between agency and familial obligations, the most pressing of which is taking care of her mother. The decisions depicted in the movie focus less on her career and more on her personal development.
Monica’s brother, Sonny, who struggles with bipolar disorder, presents a rich subtext to the plot: things left unsaid. His mental health crisis develops slowly and does not overtake the film, but unfolds with subtlety and nuance. By the time it becomes clear he is bipolar, the film is almost over. In the last scene, Sonny and Monica in therapy together — but they don’t say a word the entire session, and their emotional reckoning only comes when they reach the parking lot, where Sonny calls himself bipolar and Monica dispels his fear that she will love him less because he is “crazy.”
“I fucking love you so much,” Monica says through tears.
It’s an intense scene, but it’s also a moment of relief for the audience. Finally, Monica and Sonny are talking about their problems, which all come down to their simple insecurities: Sonny was scared, Monica was grieving, and they missed each other. But for the entire film, they never said it. They were just too scared of losing each other, or of saying the wrong thing, or of causing the other too much pain.
Unspoken history is similarly unearthed about halfway through the film when Monica has a flashback to a time during her childhood when she and Sonny accidentally broke a moorti, or statue. Baba, their father, comes in, and the camera is low to the floor, portraying him from the view of a child. He appears large and angry. There are allusions to his verbal and possible physical abuse when he grabs young Sonny by the arm and leads him into another room, enraged. But this is never addressed again in the film.
What can be made of these seemingly half-addressed kernels of plot? Even though Monica and Sonny do partially verbalize their conflict in the end, so much feels left unsaid. But these choices are intentional. Maybe, Day is suggesting that in these kinds of in-between households, so much is waiting to be excavated from the depths of memory. The film’s fragmented feel, then, is realistic. Trauma may go unspoken about for a long time. Eventually, though, the pain will bubble to the surface.
The central irony of “Definition Please” is that Monica is most famous for her ability to know the definitions and spelling of thousands of words in the English language. But the hardest part, Day’s film argues, is putting into words what has never been said before. As a South Asian young adult, this is a part of everyday life.
Many questions in “Definition Please” are left unanswered. The film is not trying to make a sweeping tribute to the often Western-tinged South Asian stories of extreme poverty and struggle to salvation. The characters end the film better off than when they started, but not by much. Day’s film is part of a budding movement to start telling stories about non-white people in a way that honors their culture but does not make it the entire focus of the film. Mental health, trauma, family tension — these are human experiences that spare no one. “Definition Please” doesn’t, either.
— Magazine writer Isabel T. Mehta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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