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Mona, played by Agam Darshi, carves out a life of isolation while caring for her ailing traditional Sikh father in Donkeyhead.Courtesy of levelFILM

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Written and directed by Agam Darshi

Starring Agam Darshi, Stephen Lobo and Kim Coates

Classification N/A; 105 minutes

Opens in select theatres March 11

It would be an understatement to say that Mona Ghuman, the titular character of Donkeyhead as written and played by Agam Darshi, doesn’t have her act together. (”Donkeyhead” is a literal translation of a specific kind of name-calling Punjabi parents reserve for their recalcitrant children that’s at once asinine and harsh, and can leave deep emotional scars.) Darshi plays Mona with gusto and heart. That she’s also directed her debut feature is a clear indication of her talent, and I’m very curious about her forthcoming projects.

Nevertheless, Mona remains a frustrating character, who never owns up to her full potential – either as a wayward daughter or as a misunderstood sibling – leaving viewers with a mixed bag of emotions at the end. It’s refreshing to see yet another late bloomer, churlish South Asian female character as the lead in a dramatic feature, turning the model minority myth on its head. But Donkeyhead also wants to play it a little safe, and stick to a script of redemption rather than flipping it altogether along with the birds that Mona flips to judgey aunties. It’s a shame because the writing then becomes rather formulaic than groundbreaking in a film that tries to tread new ground in telling a South Asian diasporic story.

Set in Regina, Donkeyhead is about Mona begrudgingly caring for her father, who has been diagnosed with cancer, for seven years. She lives in the family home she grew up in, trying to work on a draft of a yet-unfinished novel, when she’s not caring for her bedridden father. But really, she’s procrastinating, full of self-doubt. If that’s not enough, she’s also having an affair with a much older, married man Brent (Kim Coates). We later learn that Brent is also the Ghuman family lawyer, which makes things awkward, to say the least.

After her father suffers a stroke and falls into a coma, Mona must call her three siblings: Rup (Huse Madhavji), Sandy (Sandy Sidhu) and Parm (Stephen Lobo). The trio arrives together, although they live in New York, London (England, I’m assuming) and Toronto, driving in the same Uber ride from the airport to their old home. Soon after the siblings step inside the house, the bickering starts.

Sandy thinks their father should be in the hospital, where he can receive proper care. Parm and Rup don’t disagree – especially since Parm is a bona fide doctor who explains that it’s rare for stroke patients to wake up from their coma. But the brothers also try to be mindful of Mona’s persistence in caring for their father. To add to the mayhem, their aunt (Balinder Johal) wants to organize a three-day paath (a prayer service) at the Ghuman family home, which Mona points will be an open invitation to all the desi aunts and uncles – and their kin – in the neighbourhood and beyond to come over for endless cups of chai and pakoras.

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Mona remains a frustrating character who never owns up to her full potential, leaving viewers with a mixed bag of emotions at the end.Courtesy of levelFILM

Things come to a head when the family will is revealed, and a series of secrets come tumbling out of creaking closets. Harsh words are dished out and angry tears are spilled. Each sibling is shown to have their own fault lines. Even as Mona tries to come to terms with her failures, she continues to to be muleheaded in other ways. When a partial motivation for Mona’s obstinacy is revealed at the end, it doesn’t explain her behaviour. The reconciliation at the end feels borne out of a necessity to tie things together.

Even if Darshi hasn’t written Mona from personal experience, she clearly knows the character intimately, and gives Mona a kind of stubborn vulnerability that’s totally relatable. She’s desperate for an acknowledgment from her father and siblings, which never comes in her presence. Lobo, Sidhu and Madhavji play her siblings with sincerity – their love tempered with begrudging concern.

The challenge comes, however, from Darshi’s attempt to redeem Mona in the end. The best of dysfunctional families are difficult to manage. Any form of peace negotiations that occur at family gatherings usually have an undercurrent of tension lurking beneath, which threatens to bubble up. Partings are usually paired with uneasy truces. Old wounds are seldom healed; rather scabs form over them, covering years of resentment, until they are picked at again.

Mona’s reconciliation, then, feels more like wishful thinking than an attempt to dig deeper into her character. If Darshi had truly embraced Mona’s messiness, it might have made for a more meaningful, even if tentative, conclusion.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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