Warning: spoilers in the last third of the review.
Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 41 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger,
but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Like TV’s marvelous series Wonder Years, the film is narrated by its grown-up protagonist Smith Bhatnagar (Samrat Chakrabarti), who has returned to America after 19 years of marriage and the study of medicine in his parents’ native India. Our story takes place over a year in the late 1970s. Frank Lotito’s picture about an Indian immigrant family can be a fun outing for the family, though adults will find some of the incidents a bit far-fetched. It certainly is not on a par with such films as Jim Sheridan’s In America or Mira Nair’s The Namesake, but is still much better than most other inane comedies of the recent past in that it does have something to say about an outsider growing up in America.
The story is spread over the year 1979 when the family was living in a small town amidst the hills of Oklahoma and young Smith (Roni Akurati) is 10 years-old. His father Bhaaskhar (Anju Nigam) had established himself as a CPA and, wishing to fit into his new land, had chosen what he thought was the most American of first names for his son, “Smith.” He is so clueless concerning the culture of his new land that we are not sure that he now knows of the strangeness of his choice of a last for a first name. The other members of the Bhatnagar family include the mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and his loving teenage sister Asha (Shoba Narayan). The latter thus far has fit best into American culture, especially its teen dating mores. Slipping out of the house with a “Bye,” she leaves her parents with the assumption that she is going to study with a girlfriend, when in reality she is going to meet her boyfriend Patrick (Paul Castro, Jr.). We see her closeness to her brother when she confides to him that she has an American boyfriend, despite her parents having chosen a husband for her back in India.
Smith is a little surprised when his parents show him that they have chosen not only his profession—a neuro-surgeon–but also his wife to be. They post the picture of the girl, his same age, on the wall above their fireplace mantle. But Smith has already given his heart to the classmate living across the street from him, Amy (Brighton Sharbino). She is a good choice in that as a part of getting to know him she has studied up on Indian culture and religion, so that when she and her parents Butch and Nancy (Jason Lee and Hilarie Burton), come over for their first backyard meal, she is the one who explains to her parents the various religious objects displayed in their Hindu home.
It is too bad that she had not earlier informed her ignorant parents that the family, being Hindu, are vegetarians, because when Butch sees that there is no meat on the shish kabob sticks, just the vegetables Bhaaskhar is grilling, he runs back to their house, and returns with two large steaks that he slaps onto the grill. His host is offended, but manages to keep it to himself, just barely. During the course of the meal Butch and Nancy’s cultural insensitivity is incredible. And yet throughout the rest of the film Butch is very sensitive to Smith, taking the boy under his wing and becoming his mentor in all things American. Smith had been very open to this because when he first met the neighbor in his garage, Butch had been tinkering with his prize motorcycle, the brand being “Indian,” which the boy had seen as a good omen for their relationship.
That Smith is regarded very much as an outsider we see when, after trying out for the first time, and then spitting out a piece of Col. Sanders Fried Chicken, three bullies chase after him on their bikes. Butch, in his pickup truck, stops in front of the three boys and tells them to get lost. At school, it is Amy who constantly stands up for her friend.
The film’s vignettes range from the humorous—in addition to that vegetarian meal, there is a disastrous hunt out in the woods that Butch takes Smith on—to the dramatic, as when Butch and Nancy, strapped for cash, argue so heatedly over whether to sell or keep his expensive Indian bike that he angrily rides away, their marriage obviously in peril. There is a Halloween sequence full of misunderstandings—Smith’s parents do not appreciate its importance to American children, Nalini belatedly sewing him a costume of the four-armed Hindu god Ganesha. Amy knows about Ganesha, but one neighbor thinks Smith is Dumbo, and a pair of conservative Christians are so upset when told, they refuse the two children candy, handing them instead a tract against paganism.
There is even a brief sequence in which Smith is regarded such a hero that he achieves national fame. But this does not keep the boy from suffering the penalty that his father had threatened throughout the story—obey him in every matter or be shipped back to India. When their father discovers that Asha has been sneaking off to see her boyfriend, he is so enraged that he almost decides to send her back. But eventually it is Smith, having transgressed his father’s dictates one time too many, who is banished.
And thus, we come back to the adult Smith, returning to his hometown and on his way to rejoin his family. Apparently, they had become too settled in their adopted land to want to go back to live in India except for short visits. When he reunites with them in front of their house, we see that his parents had also given in somewhat to American ways—Asha is there with her American husband and their little son.
After his reunion with his family, Smith goes across the street, and sure enough, there is Butch, working on a motorcycle. Smith informs him that he had adapted to his parents plan for his life, finding that it had worked out after all, though not unfolding quite as they had planned. We are left with the possibility of still another development, but I will leave that for you to discover.
As I wrote above, there are some elements which strain credibility, but, overall, this is an enjoyable film about an outsider coping fairly well with the immigrant experience. This makes the film very timely when so many Americans are questioning the admission of others who are different from us in culture and religion.
This review with a set of questions will be in the May 2017 issue of VP.