‘Definition Please’ Is A Powerful And Promising Feature Debut

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I’ve always loved a good existential indie.

Everyone needs feel-good movies, blockbusters, or even over-the-top awards bait, but a top-notch independent movie hurts and heals you with its verisimilitude, even if you only watch it once and never come back. 

Netflix’s Definition Please, written and directed by Sujata Day and produced by Ava Duvernay’s Array, scratches that indie itch with the story of one family’s quiet suffering, volatile relationships, and slow but steady rebuilding.

Day also stars as Monica, a former spelling bee winner, who never quite lived up to her champion status — at least not in the eyes of those around her. She returns to her small Pennsylvania hometown to take care of mother Jaya (Anna Khaja), while her brother Sonny (Ritesh Rajan) comes home for their father’s death anniversary. 

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Happy Bhai Phota to Netflix only.

Like a lot of today’s crop of films and TV by rising South Asian American talent, Definition Please is more interested in culture as a backdrop, not a conflict. Most of the cast and many cultural references are Indian, but that’s one part of Monica’s identity that she doesn’t need to parse. Specificities like the board game Carrom, Patel Brothers grocery, or a harmonium performance will immerse rather than alienate. Bengalis in the audience even get the treat of seeing bhai phota on screen, contextualized but not overexplained for the uninitiated.

As such, Definition Please fits seamlessly into the esteemed indie film family where burned-out adults return home to work through past trauma. It’s more like Young Adult or Girl Most Likely than American Desi, and to its benefit. Day spends time on the quiet moments in Monica’s life, on lonely introspection and sharing a bed with her mother or sibling tomfoolery with Sonny. The brother-sister relationship pops off the screen as we unravel his mental health history. Rajan skillfully moves between playfully manic and almost catatonically depressed, imbuing the film’s final act with dread and frustration. 

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Ritesh Rajan and Sujata Day’s sibling bond is one of the strongest parts of “Definition Please” on Netflix.

The family dynamic and story at the core of Definition Please are so strong that the film doesn’t need a lot of its accessories. Sometimes, when Monica sees people — usually attractive men — the screen explodes with music, color, and slow-motion as she spells out a relevant word (“callipygian” for someone with a nice butt). It’s a fun device and cheeky spelling-themed gimmick, but it’s employed just sporadically enough to be jarring every time. Even the secondary characters feel a bit redundant. Delightful though it is to see Lizzie McGuire‘s Lalaine on screen again, she gets little characterization as Monica’s best friend, as does Jake Choi, who plays a love interest that completely disappears for large swathes of the film.

Joining the lineup of formidable Hollywood multi-hyphenates behind and in front of the camera — including her friend and mentor Issa Rae — Sujata Day makes wearing multiple hats look easy. Day’s imprint is on every piece of the film, from raising money to making it to sending out her own publicity emails. She nails the film’s structure and pacing, daring to experiment with the spelling bee premise even when it could fade into the background. Make no mistake: There is a cohesive, tangible, and powerful force behind Definition Please, and she’s just getting started.

Definition Please is now streaming on Netflix.

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