By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Definition Please,” now streaming on Netflix, is the feature directorial debut of its leading actress, Sujata Day, who is also the writer of the film. Day plays Monica Chowdry, a 20-something former Scripps Spelling Bee champ, whose life hasn’t gone the way people expected. She lives with her mother, who is convalescing with hyperthyroidism, and she is estranged from her brother, Sonny (Ritesh Rajan), who has just come home to attend their father’s funeral.
Day has said she aimed to create roles she wanted to play versus the stereotypical South Asian roles she had been previously offered. I agree the characters aren’t stereotypes, but it is confusing trying to figure out what their “deal” is. Monica is weirdly surly, and I deduced the audience is supposed to think, “Wow, that adorable little spelling bee winner turned into THIS?” She smokes pot, has sex on a first date, and hangs out with her best friend, Krista (Lalaine), in one of those half-empty, semi-dive, small-town bars that probably the large part of the audience never goes into and yet always seem to feature in movies—maybe screenwriters hang out there?
But I digress. None of these things are inherently “bad,” yet could be considered “relatively bad” compared to the spelling bee hero “type,” which would be a goody two-shoes nerd, right? The viewer supposes (hopes!) the background behind Monica’s surliness will be revealed. Is it as simple as missed and dreams gone by? Is it that she should be a post-spelling bee success story, but she’s not? Is it because she’s “stuck” home taking care of Mom? Why is she so pissed when her brother comes back to help with the funeral?
“No one spells out how to grow up” is the film’s catchphrase. It’s true the siblings are struggling with their shared childhoods and how to define themselves now. Add to this that the improvement of their mom, Jaya (Anna Khaja), and her condition depends on her not experiencing any stress. The responsibility for this is put squarely on her children’s shoulders—they must not fight. It’s the biggest possible guilt trip. What, to me, was regular brother-sister banter causes Mom’s blood pressure to rise, so the film spends half its time exploring how, or if, the kids will get along, and the other half exploring whether Monica will “get a life.”
Everyone in the family has misconceptions about what happened back in the day. We are told Sonny has a mental imbalance that causes him to “act out” when he has emotions. He has “gotten better,” which implies maybe he was violent before. This would explain why Monica gets triggered whenever he jokes with her or tries to be the protective older brother. It’s the sad residue of when he was her protective older brother—and took the heat for her with their dad, while Monica shut down in response to her family’s drama.
Throughout the film, she has this—her only—cute habit of spelling out and defining words at key moments. When the movie’s tension is at its highest, she picks the word “bewusstseinslage,” which means a feeling devoid of sensory components.
Monica, or Boony, as she is nicknamed, has something holding her back. But the real elephant in the room is mental illness. There is a stereotype in macho Sonny not wanting to admit needing medication or therapy, yet it’s true that, statistically, Asian men are reluctant to seek help for mental health, and that issue does need spotlighting. Plus, Sonny has legit baggage. He is a loving son and brother who speaks out about how he feels—that Monica was treated better by their parents than he was—yet his confessions are labeled mental instability rather than “healthy expression of feelings,” or both. Meanwhile Monica keeps her feelings inside, which is toxic.
I appreciated the truthfulness of the dichotomy between the brother and sister, as each responded to their childhoods in realistic ways. Growing up is complicated. Unfortunately, to me, Monica was just not likable. She finds it nearly impossible to try to get along with her brother. She snaps at him every time he makes a joke (and he’s funny). She just stares when something intense happens, then backs out. “Sonny always protected you. Maybe it’s time for you to protect him,” says a family friend. Yet the very next opportunity she gets to make nice, she says no and only does so grudgingly, when Jaya forces her to. Can you spell “recalcitrant,” Monica?
I don’t think we’re supposed to like Sonny that much more, the way that I did. I think we’re supposed to engage with Monica, but I didn’t. I also don’t think the humor is supposed to fall flat—but it does—and dramatic scenes dud out as well. Scenes with the brother and sister together are painfully awkward, not in a good way, when they should be riveting. All in all, I found “Definition Please” boring and had to turn it off multiple times and come back to it before I could get through it. I wanted to know what was going to happen, but just barely.
Definition please: “denouement.” In the last 30 minutes, it’s almost interesting. The movie reminded me of “Garden State,” except the characters happen to be South Asian (there are few white people in the film, such as Bee folks or the bratty children who pick on Monica’s tutee). Comments have been made that it’s unusual for a female to be cast in the role of the directionless post-high school lead, so that’s something. It’s also nice that, while a few clichés are present (“your parents sacrificed so much so you could have a good life and you just take it for granted”), the overbearing father, the Bee itself, they’re not over-done. The movie and the characters live in a convincing space that combines the cultures of the United States and India.
I think most filmmakers have good intentions to teach us something. In this case, I don’t think it’s Jaya’s mantra, “the past is the past,” because that’s wishful thinking. Everyone deals with the past inside of us every day. What’s better is that the movie suggests we see layers, not labels. The maternal goddess, sweet in her convalescent state, was not innocent in the family trauma (and still isn’t, no spoilers!). The son labeled ADHD, bipolar, or what-have-you—yes, maybe it’s partly that, but he also “acts out” to be seen, or because he learned from his dad, who beat him, how to be aggressive. The not-so-over-achieving spelling bee heroine is a grumpy mcgrumpface, but also an anti-hero who influences her spelling bee tutoree—whose mom does want her to be a stereotype—to say out loud, “I don’t give a f***.” I applaud that. We can all defy definition.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.