The crowning achievement of Sujata Day’s Definition Please is the way the film navigates smoothly between the slow and chaotic rhythms of life. Day, who not only stars in the film, but also directed, wrote, and produced it, plays Monica Chowdry. Once the image of a perfect child: smart, sweet, and a Spelling Bee champion, Monica spends her days now as an adult taking care of her mom, living at home, still single, and working as a tutor. With the coming of the anniversary of her father’s death, Monica’s older brother Sonny returns home after years of being away in California.
The estranged relationship between Sonny, Monica, and their mother, Jaya, is by far the most interesting dynamic in the film, and as you make your way through the 91 minute flick, slowly the story between them unfolds. The most ethereal moments, however, aren’t between these three characters, but rather in the meditative vignettes where you are able to revel in the soul of small-town America. Set in Greenberg, Pennsylvania, Day’s hometown, Day morphs Greenberg beyond just a setting but into an ambiance, a personality, a mood. You can feel the wind in your hair, hear the rustling of leaves and the sounds of the night, there’s a dream-like quality, a reminiscence of the past.
Sonny’s return is the key catalyst that pushes both Monica and Jaya to confront the ghosts of their past. While some of the climactic scenes with Sonny can come off as awkward and melodramatic at times, those scenes are far and few between the enjoyable moments of family candor that can’t be comfortably fit into any one box. For those who enjoy arthouse flicks, the pacing will be familiar. The film moves at its own pace, meandering between Monica’s struggle with her career, Sonny’s struggle with his mental health, and Jaya’s struggle with her two children.
Although it’s seeped within an Indian American community, and very much holds onto the cultural touchpoints of that community, Definition Please rarely slips into any glaring stereotypes that might make it rote. It toes the line carefully, presenting moments and leaving the viewer to make up their minds about it. Because it is an Indian American story, family is a topic that is basically baked into the formula. Nearly all Asian American stories involve some aspect of family, which can honestly be a little tiring. As an Asian American myself, I can find it exhausting to constantly have to be reminded of the emotional baggage we carry as children of immigrants, whether that be from the society that we were born to assimilate into or from the community that, though with the best of intentions, sometimes did more harm than good.
But Definition Please does not do that as much as it tells a singular person’s story. Monica’s background and her roots are not actually a part of the center stage of her story. Yes, her relationship with her brother and her mother defines her in many ways, and the revelations about her family’s relationship before the passing of her father make for a gripping narrative device. But the film is ultimately about Monica. Sonny goes through his own journey with his bipolar disorder, but for better or worse, that development is not explored as much due to the simple fact that this is a story told through Monica’s point of view. The film is about Monica being thrust out of stagnation, out of a moment in time that she’s been trapped in, out of arrested development. She’s been the Spelling Bee champion for all these years, and instead of moving forward, she is trapped by her past glories and demons. The experiences she has throughout the film give her permission to finally evolve, and that is infinitely relatable to a wider audience.
While the film can sometimes slip into melodrama, Definition Please is grounded through Sujata Day’s performance and direction. She takes her time telling a story that expands beyond the cookie-cutter and strives for more.
This film review is based on a screening from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Photo Courtesy of Visual Communications.