It’s hard figuring out who you are, but it’s even harder when you have to spell it out. That’s where a film like Definition Please comes in.
Director and writer Sujata Day (known for her role as Sarah on HBO’s Insecure) stars as Monica Chowdry, the film’s lead and former winner of the Scripps Spelling Bee. That Spelling Bee win from her childhood appears to be the peak moment of Monica’s washed-up life. As an adult, she searches for purpose while living at home with her parents and tutoring Spelling Bee hopefuls. Monica meanders through supermarket runs that feel just as sterile as her life and waits to pick up her tutee from the local school.
Monica waits a lot in the film. In many ways, Definition Please feels like that moment of waiting during a Spelling Bee, right after the word is provided but before the contestant is expected to answer. That in-between struggle for answers about identity and belonging is a familiar phenomenon for many Asian Americans and immigrant communities. It’s part of what makes the film so compelling.
For the better half of the film, Definition Please centers on the relationship between Monica and her brother Sonny (played by Ritesh Rajan), who returns in an unexpected (and for Monica, undesired) homecoming. Throughout the film, the conflict within the household stems from Sonny’s unwillingness to address his mental health and the subsequent impact it has on the family unit. Monica’s mother, Jaya (played by Anna Khaja), is ill with a condition that appears to worsen because of constant fighting. Monica herself has to reconcile with what her brother means to her before she can fully process who she is.
The character discovery of moving beyond “success” is the most poignant theme of Definition Please. One of the most meaningful scenes in the film comes when Monica speaks to her best friend Krista (played by Lalaine) about the plans they had for their futures. It’s a moment that emphasizes the dreams we share, where every success is only a stepping stone to another one.
The two discuss how every former winner seems to be successful and doing great things with their lives and how it’s an ideal Monica should aspire to. It’s a small conversation that represents larger insecurities for Desi Americans, where everyone always seems to be winning more awards—each one better than the last—securing coveted jobs, or becoming famous and the subject of newspaper articles, viewed as a landmark validation.
Those fixations on past achievements, the film implies, distract us from fully viewing the future. The tensions between external and internal validation are crucial to Definition Please, where the title significantly alludes to Monica’s own conflicts. For Monica, the process of finding “definition” is not so much about “winning” at life but seeking meaning from it.
In another scene, Monica is fired from her tutoring job after her tutee reveals she hasn’t wanted to participate in the Spelling Bee all this time and that she’s misspelled words on purpose. The tutee’s mother rages against Monica, telling her that she can’t let Monica’s failure corrupt her daughter’s life too. The moment reveals a “definition” of failure that is both a fear and driving force for more in the wider Asian American community—a relatable sentiment and a necessary one.
Aside from those more serious elements, the film is fun in a way that many films about Asian Americans don’t have the opportunity to be. While Definition Please speaks to fundamental issues about identity from a uniquely South Asian perspective, it also has the freedom to celebrate the true complexity of the diasporic experience. Monica invokes the importance of tradition in sing-alongs with her mom. Significant moments are punctuated by spelling out words that go along with the scenes, a motif used throughout the film. It’s a cinematic reminder of Monica’s origins and her cultural roots, but it also gives the film a creative edge that makes it all the more personal.
Like Monica, certain scenes could use some refining. Brevity is at the heart of emotional resonance and at times, a few moments lose their emotional resonance when they extend beyond their purpose. It’s a reminder, though, that life isn’t like a movie. Sometimes people come back when you’re not quite sure how to deal with them. Sometimes you don’t quite know how a word is spelled, but you’re given the opportunity to try.
Monica does try. And while it’s not clear whether she’s truly found her “definition” at the end, she does know her language of origin. She knows what it means to her, and there aren’t enough words in the world to describe that.
Photo Credits: June Street Productions