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film review

In writer-director Sujata Day’s debut feature Definition Please, lead character Monica Chowdry (Sujata Day) is a college grad who still lives at home with her mother. A former national spelling bee champion, she now finds herself tutoring a new generation of spelling champion hopefuls in her hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.Courtesy of Netflix

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Definition, Please

Written and directed by Sujata Day

Starring Sujata Day, Ritesh Rajan and LeVar Burton

Classification N/A; 91 minutes

Streaming on Netflix starting Jan. 21

Critic’s Pick

In the late aughts, there was a general awareness among diasporic South Asians of a new type of immigrant success story: young South Asians kids acing the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a nerdy American competition. These were usually second-generation preteens, born in the United States to parents who came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or occasionally Sri Lanka.

The feat of winning the annual contest played into more than a few preoccupations of the privileged South Asian community: excelling in a mild-mannered brain sport that operated with a sense of logic (for the most part); rote memorization; and practise. Plus, it was televised! There were great expectations for these young people who’d captured media attention with every single hem and haw, pause, and requests for “language of origin.”

The new film Definition, Please tells the story of one such spelling whiz who isn’t living up to her potential. The story goes that Monica Chowdry won the contest as an eight-year-old, to the delight of her parents, older brother Sonny and community at large. She was the pride of her hometown, Greensburg, Pa. Fast forward 15 years and Monica (Sujata Day) is now living with her perpetually unwell mother Jaya (Anna Khaja), tutoring fresh young hopefuls on the side.

There’s a sense of ennui as she drives from one tutoring gig to another, smoking a joint during her commute before having to deal with South Asian tiger moms. But then Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) returns home from his job in California to attend a memorial ceremony for their father. Compared with Monica’s low-key meanderings, Sonny is a manic presence, his outbursts jolting his sister out of her placid sense of self. Old grudges and family secrets emerge, and we come to understand why Monica is resentful of her estranged brother’s sudden reappearance, and why Sonny is acting out.

As Monica teeters between her mother’s undefined ailments and Ronny’s exuberance, she’s trying to figure out a path forward. Why is the former spelling bee champ second-guessing herself? Definition, Please sets out to re-examine the model minority myth and explore issues such as mental illness that are painstakingly avoided at family dinner tables and community gatherings.

It’s an intimate film that defies expectations in small ways. Monica’s rebellions are quiet. Her instinctive reaction to awkward situations is to smile and deflect. Rather than scream in frustration at the circumstances she finds herself in, Monica retreats to personal escapes such as a repurposed childhood tree house. Small flashback vignettes provide some explanations of Monica’s quandaries.

There’s a charm to Definition, Please and its female perspective in telling the story of a somewhat dysfunctional South Asian family. It’s a refreshing representation of the South Asian diasporic experience, going beyond stereotypical images of immigrant identity. Yes, there’s a gaggle of aunties who attend the memorial ceremony, and yes they end up talking about marriage prospects. But the scene is delightfully unexpected, and almost an aside rather than a moment being played for big laughs.

There’s an undercurrent of awkward comedy running throughout the film; clearly Day has put her experiences in improv theatre, as well as recurring roles on Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl and Insecure, to good use.

There are quibbles. Some of the scenes meant to build a character sketch, especially around the filial relationship, feel rambling, with dialogue that is too expository.

However, Monica’s mother, Jaya, rankled me the most. To her credit, Day has written an unconventional mom character who displays a kind of selfish love toward her children. That sort of role requires a more lived-in performance, of an immigrant woman coming to terms with a lifetime of regrets. This one was hampered by a weird mishmash accent that ended up making Jaya sound and feel disjointed.

Nevertheless, there is much to appreciate about Definition, Please, including its indie aesthetic. It’s a welcome addition in redefining the diasporic experience.

Special to The Globe and Mail

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.