Zaarin Bushra in White Elephant (2021)
The quest for self-love plays a compelling role in White Elephant, the first feature written and directed by Andrew Chung (as Andrew C). Set in 1996 Scarborough-Markham, the film follows Pooja (Zaarin Bushra), a South Asian teenage girl with a passion for movies and a crush on a white boy who works at a video store across from her high school. From the dreamy Luhrmann-esque Romeo + Juliet fish tank scene to the rock/pop anthem opening credits, the 90s certainly shine through in a charming way. As does the naïveté of young love, which in just an hour’s runtime becomes a well-paced intersectional slice of life about a girl who discovers the importance of self-love.
The strength of realism in world-building is refreshing to see in this film. Growing up in a South Asian neighbourhood, Pooja and her friends experience daily racism seen particularly from boy crush Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) and his friends. In addition, Pooja’s admiration for mainstream Hollywood love stories is an interesting detail that trickles down to the way she sees Trevor. The story initially plays out as a romantic comedy, which then branches out into so many resonating themes and gives the film a unique point of view. White Elephant is instantly endearing, a quality maintained by Zaarin Bushra’s accomplished performance in the leading role. While most of the performances feel on the one-dimensional side, which speaks more to the short runtime of the film, this story has a talented anchor in Bushra’s work. She conveys a sentimental yearning for the love depicted in movies she holds near and dear, including Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, from which Chung replicates another scene towards the end of the film. Infusing this grand love story in particular, not to mention evoking sensations remarkably similar to what is felt in Luhrmann’s adaptation, feels like a fitting homage for Pooja’s wistfulness and dramatic change of heart.
Zaarin Bushra’s performance is a wonderful unity of optimism, frustration, and dream-like longing. A charming car scene of Pooja’s dad driving her home evokes the feeling of pretending to be in a music video. Another car scene, which features an insightful conversation between Pooja and her dad, brings strong characterization to the forefront of this film. White Elephant reflects a strong coming-of-age story about a teenage girl who wants more in life. She doesn’t want to hang out at a coffee shop every single day “like a bunch of senior citizens.” Pooja is an incredibly endearing character brought to life by a performance that makes one yearn for more screen time and hopeful for what Andrew Chung (and Zaarin Bushra) do next.
The 2021 Canadian Film Fest runs from April 1st to April 17th. 🇨🇦