By Nadia Dalimonte
Sujata Day and Ritesh Rajan in Definition Please (2020); film still from Sujata Day
Writer, producer, and director Sujata Day tells an incredibly charming story in her debut feature film Definition Please. Her debut excels as a comedic and dramatic character study that comes from a place of authenticity. Day, who also stars in the film as Monica Chowdry, flexes her many talents both in front of and behind the screen. With love, she highlights family ties and bottled up conflicts that arise, which gives all the characters a sense of urgency.
There’s so much to love about this story of the Chowdry family, starting from the beginning. The film follows Monica (Day), a Scribbs National Spelling Bee champion who won her accolade in 2005 and was poised to move onto bigger, better things. Day introduces the character in her moments of young glory with a time capsule of starry news footage. Fast forward to: adult Monica, 15 years after her win and still living at home in sleepy Greensburg, Pennsylvania. She lives with her mom Jaya (Anna Khaja) and is a tutor to young Spelling Bee hopefuls. Monica leads life with a resistance to change. She gets an exciting job offer that would take her to a new setting, but she lets the opportunity collect some dust, pending a response. Close friend Krista (Lalaine), who works at the town bar, urges Monica to climb the ladder to greatness, but family obligations keep Monica at home a while longer.
Her estranged older brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) returns home to help take care of their mom, who we learn is living with an illness. Monica and Sonny don’t get along, and there is an urgency for them to reconnect as they help their mom prepare for the anniversary of their dad’s death. Jaya won’t be able to leave this earth in peace knowing that her children are having trouble bonding. But the more the siblings try to patch things up, in an effort to lift their mom’s spirits, the more their personal struggles rise to the surface.
Day touches on many universally resonating themes from her perspective within the South Asian-American community. The story seamlessly balances heartfelt portrayals of family obligations, different coping mechanisms, the rocky road to adulthood, and chronic sickness. Day also makes a powerful connection between the characters and the stigma surrounding invisible diseases. Sonny, who appears to be bubbly and has a zest for life, is coming to terms with his bipolar disorder diagnosis. We see light switch moments where his mood suddenly turns angry or violent. Monica doesn’t want him in her life if he’s not on medication, but when he is on medication, he doesn’t feel like himself. The film has a refreshing representation of mental health. Day engages in open conversation about characters in healing and the sense of wishing away conflict, hoping it would magically disappear by pretending long enough.
Definition Please is made more resonating through the performances. Each and every cast member shine in their roles, especially the family trio of Day, Khaja, and Rajan. They share such heartwarming chemistry full of humour and depth, bringing well written characters onto the screen. The film also has strong visuals, sometimes evoking memories from Monica’s childhood that give insight to her feelings of comfort as well as getting to the root of some traumas. Another great layer is the way Day includes Spelling Bee influences, through Monica often using complex words that her friends need simplified, or through fun visuals where a word and definition will appear on screen when an attractive-looking man walks into frame.
In her film, Day plays on the expectations and pressures of what success looks like as an adult. The pressure starts from an early age; there’s a strong moment in the film in which one of Monica’s students decides she doesn’t want to be part of the Spelling Bee anymore. The student’s mom projects fears of failure onto Monica and her situation of still living at home. It’s a great scene that speaks to the amount of detail Sujata Day brings to telling a story that she wants to see up on screen. Her debut is one of the most heartfelt films of the year.