Reviews

‘Definition Please’: A Charming Debut on Sibling Love and Identity

Sujata Day’s charming debut tells the story of Monica Chowdry (played by Day herself) and her family in the Pennsylvanian suburbs. Monica spends her days taking care of her mother and struggling with the failure of living up to her potential since her big spelling bee win. She occasionally teaches a bunch of kids whose parents are hoping they’ll be able to emulate Monica’s win.

Monica has convinced herself that she’s happy with her comfortable life in the company of her best friend Krista (Lalaine, who makes her big-screen return), her students, and her mother. This is disrupted when her estranged older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) arrives to help take care of their mother for the week. Sonny makes a wild impression at first, interrupting his sister’s hook-up and making light of the fiasco. It’s clear this isn’t new for Monica. The faux content feeling she’s trying to settle into is disrupted again, opening up the film’s deeper conflict.

There are so many things to ponder about Day’s debut, but so much of its heart lies in Sonny’s struggle with his illness and his place in the Chowdry family. Rajan manages to balance the anger and love he has for his family, but underneath it all is a lingering sadness. Day supports Rajan’s performance as a spectator, a falling star burning in her own way, filling each scene with a sense of lostness. 

Thinking about Sonny, the eldest Chowdry sibling who presents a hyperkinetic, optimistic front, makes me wonder about how older siblings tend to create certain identities to lean into because it’s more acceptable to be loved the way your parents want to see you. We find out later that Sonny’s relationship with his bipolar disorder and its violent manifestations is the reason why his relationship with the family is fractured; there’s a feeling of shame after each bipolar episode, along with the issues stemming from his parents’ emotional neglect. While his mother acknowledges her failure for her part, Monica advises him to get back to therapy and on medication. Sonny refuses and avoids it, for fear of it suppressing the identity he’s created and leaned into. It physically hurts to watch him struggle with certain childhood traumas and how insecure he feels when he compares himself to Monica.

One of my favorite scenes, the siblings’ birthday performance for their ailing mother, tells everything about their relationship. The back-to-back bickering and scolding at each other’s performances to keep their mom happy and entertained remind me of personal memories of putting up a mask, of performing a version of ourselves to gain our parent’s approval and love. It’s played for laughs, but I love how the mother’s occasional correction on how the performance should go says a lot about a parent’s expectations of her children.

That said, I initially found the spelling scenes jarring and disruptive, but it’s interesting how much of Monica’s intense emotional reactions in certain situations are rooted in defining something present in the scene. It tethers her to the situation no matter how upsetting it is, even if it’s in someone’s well-shaped buttocks. These intrusive little details keep her afloat.

Despite their differences and issues towards one another, Sonny and Monica’s sibling love shines in its carefree and small moments. Sibling love is often expressed in their own eccentric ways, in its disdain and moments of anger; you could feel it whenever the two were in the same room, individually carrying their own baggage, trying to reach out to one another in their own bridges. Sonny and Monica can only move forward when that bridge is repaired, and that journey in the film is lovely to watch.

The writing of the characters is done well, but the plot felt loose. The ending would have benefitted from a few more minutes so the writing could be tighter in resolving the last arc. Regardless, I felt Definition Please accurately examined the Asian family in America, forever assimilating in the American land; and much like Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, it presents a family already torn apart by this assimilation. You can see this in the way the parents in this film strictly dictate what path their children must take to succeed. While the common white family can afford to fail and start again, immigrant families must strive harder to succeed, because otherwise they will be made more of an outcast in a land that already treats immigrants as outcasts. We don’t often discuss how assimilation fractures familial relationships, but I find that Definition Please succeeds. There is strength in moving forward once these fractures are mended; the siblings bring their walls down and care more for one another.

Definition Please may be rough around the edges and could use tighter writing in wrapping up its ends, but it’s a promising, delightful examination of Asian-American families, sibling love, and moving forward. I am definitely looking forward to Sujata Day’s work in the future.

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