It isn’t surprising how effortlessly Sujata Day (whose film Cowboy and Indian was screened at CAAMFest in 2017) takes center stage in the actress’ debut directorial comedy-drama feature, Definition Please. Notable for her comedy background and roles on HBO’s Insecure and Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, Day’s sharp sense of humor and intuitive approach to dramatic acting is sure to win over audiences both familiar and new to her presence on screen. Filmed and set in the director’s home town, Definition Please is also a thoughtful launching point for the emerging director whose upbringing in an Indian American home in a Pittsburgh suburb, this story loosely bases itself upon.
The first image in the movie is of young Monica. She is standing on an auditorium stage before a microphone drenched in the flood of white stage lights. Monica is receiving the final word of the spelling bee. The camera encircles her. It keeps winding, cutting between Monica and the contest moderator as they tack back and forth in a quick-fire round of question and answer. Monica provides the final spelling. The camera lands on a close-up of her face. She realizes she has won and lights up in enthusiasm. There is applause, a blizzard of confetti, and quickly she is embraced by her mother, father, and brother on stage. The achievement is bewitching, impressive, and positively rewarded in the fanfare of celebrity that follows (photographs of young Monica with Oprah, guest appearances on children’s television shows, interviews with local TV news stations).
Day plays the adult Monica, a bona fide logophile who lives at home with her ailing mother. Having done exceedingly well for herself as a kid, Monica’s present day achievements appear truncated in the shadow of the bigger-than-life success of her past. Her widowed mother, Jaya (Anna Khaja), is a devoted parent. With her late husband, they endured the adversity of immigration and the trials of raising two children in the United States. Monica’s estranged older brother, Sonny (Ritesh Rajan), is a former star high school athlete. An ebullient and charming personality, he shows his great affection for Monica through the usual antics of sibling play and lighthearted rivalry. While Monica may be the lead protagonist of this story, the heart of the film is certainly shared by this ensemble cast. Day exquisitely lends significance to her characters, allowing each to shift their weight on the story. In turn, the filmmaker offers a truer portrait of the complexities of familial dynamics and roles.
The plot hinges on Jaya’s declining health. This derails Monica’s plans to take her dream job as a clinical research lab technician in Cleveland and prompts Sonny to come home from his life in Los Angeles. Together again under the roof of their family home, all the familiar signs of a coming of age story are there including the reopening of past wounds as well as the reconciliation that comes in mending strained relations, particularly between Monica and Sonny. In the world of this household, Day sketches a mis-en-scène latent with the swells of unspoken grief. Each tries to thaw tensions in the ways they know how—Monica and Sonny go grocery shopping, Sonny and Jaya revisit family photographs, they cook and move around their kitchen with well-rehearsed choreography. The family resettles into a familiar domestic routine. This seems reassuring at first but intimacy soon reveals itself to be precariously fragile.
The montage of Monica’s childhood achievements are, however, quickly undercut by the image of Monica and her family in the present day. Slouched underneath a woolen blanket, Jaya rewatches footage of Monica winning the Scribbs National Spelling Bee. Here enters adult Monica—armed with a mug of hot chai and biscuits. She bemoans, “You’re watching this again?” Jaya indulges in Monica’s chai and compliments its “Oprah-level quality”. Within seconds, they fill the space between them with frisky banter, playful sneers, and casual conversation about Monica’s schedule for the day which includes tutoring sessions with young spelling bee hopefuls. But while this conversation is in play—Monica, who paces around the living room tidying up, embodying the caretaker she is—is foregrounded by the footage of her former glory days. This visual contrast brandishes the wounds of expectation and the stings of an unrequited potential that looms overhead. Thick and atmospheric. You’re left to wonder, “What happened to Monica?”
By the time the movie sets in we learn that while the film begins with the familiar trope of the ‘model minority’ (and the disappointments that might ensue when one fails to properly achieve it), this is (and refreshingly so!) not the primary axis on which the plot pivots. Day never overindulges in lengthy expositions explaining why Monica finds herself as she does. Rather, the filmmaker foregoes the kind of stuckness that often comes hand in hand with stories that privilege themes of regret and nostalgia. Instead, the filmmaker attempts to breathe in opportunities for her characters to find new tempos and capacities for retooling how to best live on in the aftermath of tragedy. In other words, Day is interested in her characters finding new stances of resiliency–learning how to be in the space of suffering but not being completely broken by it.
Day’s approach to storytelling is productively layered and the aesthetic vibrancy and steady editing of the film is fitting for this narrative’s portrayal of a family striving to maintain a space for sweetness and levity during and despite the pangs of profound transition. The family triage is compelling—each bring their own idiosyncratic traits—what I might call a quirky but admirable kind of grit and Monica, Sonny, and Jaya are magnetic by virtue of their offbeat sense of humor and display of mutual tenderness. Swinging between deep guttural laughs and the percolating details of the story’s dramatic beat, Day also makes a poignant commentary on larger cultural issues. “Can you repeat the word?”, asks young Monica to the contest moderator. It is no coincidence that Day would choose Monica to be a spelling bee prodigy raised by immigrant parents obsessed with inculcating in their children an unbending will to master the English language. On this, Day makes an insightful critique of the promissory note of such excellence and mastery which more than oftentimes stands in for assimilation and the reaping of its supposed rewards of security and prestige. In the end, Monica appears to be less interested in spelling words than asking questions. “Can you please repeat the word?” With resounding clarity, Definition Please teaches us that love is not something you spell. It is a question that keeps being posed in order to unmoor its previous definitions–in process–rearranging, reshuffling, and reordering our metrics of love, our capacity for empathy, as well as our ability to recast and reimagine alternate possibilities and versions of the good life.
CAAMFEST’s Centerpiece Presentation has a legacy of showcasing bold Asian American voices and creators with distinct visions. For this selection, CAAM is thrilled to present Definition Please, the directorial debut feature film by Sujata Day.
Watch Definition Please on the CAAMFest website on Sat Oct 17, 6:00 pm PT.
The screening will be followed by a live Q&A with Director-Actress Sujata Day.