MAJA MA (2022)
I enjoyed this bittersweet and intimate look at sexuality, bias, and cultural expectations through the lens of a devoted, dedicated, and diligent wife and mother.
Tejas Patel (Ritwik Bhowmik) is very excited to get engaged to his Indian-American girlfriend Esha Hansraj (Barkha Singh), but first he must manage to clear the hurdle that is her skeptical and ultra-conservative, ultra-Americanized billionaire parents, Bob (Rajit Kapoor) and Pam (Sheeba Chaddha)—both of whom put on American accents so monstrously on point that I was utterly transfixed. Bob insists that Teja take a lie detector to prove he is not just after Esha’s money, which he, being pure of heart, passes with flying colors. After that, while Bob and Pam still don’t think Tejas is anything to get too excited about, they’re willing to let him marry their daughter, albeit after they go to India to meet her family and experience all the traditions, which Bob finds exotic. Tejas is mildly apoplectic with worry that his middle class family will not live up to Bob and Pam’s ridiculous expectations—they have a video of Trump praising Bob that they show off whenever possible—but he knows that his perfect mother, Pallavi (Madhuri Dixit), will do everything she can to smooth things over. Pallavi is the picture of the perfect mother in Tejas’s eyes. She takes care of his father (Gajraj Rao), helping him get reelected to his post in local government each year. She teaches dance. She cooks, cleans, and always remembers to call him from a continent away to offer him gentle advice and maintain traditions. The man has her so high on a pedestal that she must be terrified of a stiff breeze knocking her down.
Meanwhile his sister Tara (Srishti Shrivastava), who is working on her PhD in Gender Studies, is leading rallies for LGTBQ+ rights, and perhaps shouting louder than the people to whom she’s supposed to be an ally. Tara brings home her work, admonishing her father when he says something outdated, snapping at Tejas, and badgering Pallavi to speak out more. Whether because of cultural gaps, subtitles, or my own lack of understanding, this part was a little muddled for me, but the upshot is that it leads to Pallavi, in a fit of frustration, blurting out to Tara that she is actually a lesbian. This admission is secretly recorded by a visiting child, who records everyone in the neighborhood. The clip eventually falls into the wrong hands and ends up going viral on the internet, thus threatening the impending nuptials, Pallavi’s place in her community, and her relationship with her family.
Overall, the movie balances humor and seriousness to elicit a deeply personal yet universal story of this woman struggling to decide when or if to share her truth. At one point she tells her son that, “I always thought if I showered my family with immense happiness, my lie would have turned into truth someday. But a lie is always a lie.” It’s a heartbreaking admission from a woman who spent so long trying to mold herself into society’s standards and to provide for her family, who never fully understood who she was. There’s another time where she says, “apart from being a daughter, a wife, and a mother, I do have an identity.” Mic drop! No unpacking needed.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW (2023)
Somebody I Used to Know starts off feeling like comedy by blunt force trauma but, if you’re patient enough, it does have some points to make about self-acceptance and understanding. Just be warned that you’re going to have to commit to watching about 80 minutes of mostly Really? This schtick?! for maaaybe 20 minutes of Okay. I can see that.
Ally (Alison Brie) is a showrunner on a reality television series called Dessert Island that’s just wrapping up its third season of filming. She’s excited to have elicited an emotional exit interview with the winning contestant by falsely mentioning that his ex is dating again, which makes him cry and also gets him to utter the line that he wasn’t there to make friends but to “make flans.” Sadly, this isn’t enough to save the show since—as two executives explain to her using the height of their genitals as a reference mark—the ratings have plummeted. Left with no other choice than to take everyone’s advice and take some time for herself, Ally packs up her cat Harry (Gouda) and heads home to visit her mother. On the flight, Harry manages to have explosive diarrhea and vomit, which serves no other purpose than to demonstrate how low Ally has sunk. And I guess because poop and vomit are always funny? Her arrival home is a true surprise to her mother (Julie Hagerty), who she catches in the middle receiving oral sex from Ally’s third grade teacher. Anyway, Ally heads out to the local bar where she runs into some guy who she can’t remember, but he immediately brings up the time they made out in eighth grade and her how much he likes her show. He insists they take a picture together so he can show his wife, presumably because he’s excited to tell her about the show and not because he’s excited to tell her he saw some woman he once made out with when he was fourteen. You see what I mean about blunt-force comedy?
Then, when she’s sitting alone in the bar, who should mosey on in, but her ex-boyfriend Sean (Jay Ellis). The two of them end up spending the entire night together, revisiting old haunts and eating an ungodly amount of cheese and bread. As he’s delivering her home, she offers that they could continue their time together naked, but he demurs and she is confused. She tries to text him, but it turns out he’s changed his phone number, which we learn when she gets a dick pic from the guy now in possession of his old number. Do we the viewers see the penis? You betcha! Blunt. Force. Comedy. So, since she feels like things were a little weird and probably more so because she feels like her life is falling apart and Sean is the road not taken and therefore still feels brimming with possibilities and hope, Ally decides to just show up at his house and apologize…and who knows maybe they’ll have sex and start all over! But when she gets there it turns out that she’s stumbled into a whole celebration dinner for Sean and his fiancée Cassidy (Kiersey Clemons), which is super awkward. Even more awkward is the fact that Sean’s mother Joanne (Olga Merediz) asks Ally if she’ll be the videographer for the wedding. What’s not awkward is watching Ally hang out with Benny (Danny Pudi), a mutual friend of Sean and hers, who implores her to leave well enough alone and get the fuck out of the way. (He’s also the one who all but begs Sean to just TALK to Cassidy about his feelings. A novel concept if ever there was one!) Danny Pudi is always weird and wonderful and he and Allison Brie have a delightful chemistry.
A lot of what comes next feels like it follows the usual tired kind of woman pitted against woman trope while they vie for the affections of a confused man, but with added layers of melancholy. However, even as we watch Ally pull out some reality show tricks to try to undermine the betrothed, there are signs that something different may be happening between Ally and Cassidy. They discuss, among other things, Cassidy’s reticence to give up touring with her punk band and Sean’s long-held determination to have one kind of life. Perhaps there’s room for everyone to learn a lesson about how important it is to be yourself, feed your passions, and be with someone who loves and respects you entirely. And, of course, that it’s not too late to be who you really want to be. It’s a good message, which probably would be better if it weren’t, once again, the white woman imparting it to herself and everyone else, and, of course, you’ve also got to watch through a lot of visual flotsam to get to it.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
I’M TOTALLY FINE (2022)
On the face of it, I’m Totally Fine (2022) has an absurd premise for a movie—that a woman’s recently dead best friend is replaced by an identical alien who is imbued with all her memories—but in practice it absolutely works as an intimate, tender, funny, relatable portrait of loss and grief.
When we meet Vanessa (Jillian Bell), she is sitting in her car on the side of the highway, hands clutching the steering wheel, sobbing. As her crying peters out, she wipes away the tears, and returns to driving, even smiling as sings along with a song. Next, she bums some cigarettes off a random guy at a store, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, choking a bit as she lights one. As she goes on with her drive, she gets video and voice notes from her boyfriend, letting her know that he knows she wants to be alone this weekend, but it’s also okay if she wants to come home and also that he’s thinking of her and also that he learned to slap the bass. Mostly, you can tell he’s slightly worried about her well-being but trying to give her space. She arrives at a house that’s clearly too large for just one person and shortly thereafter a party planner starts setting up. The party, which was meant to celebrate the launch of the soda company run by Vanessa and her best friend Jennifer, should have been canceled, but in the wake of Jennifer’s sudden death Vanessa missed that small detail. “Am I stupid?” she asks, while staring blankly at the people scurrying around to unload trays of food and helium-filled balloons. Unfortunately, it seems that once inside the 24-hour cancellation period, not even death can stop the party setup. So Vanessa is left alone in the rented house in the middle of nowhere with all the fixings for a great party. The party planner does give her a Xanax as a kind of consolation prize, which she downs with a bottle of champagne as she wanders around the manicured patio and pool area. At one point she stops to scream into the distance before staring at the pink and purple hued horizon and saying flatly, “Stupid, fuckin’ sunset.” Friends, this was the point where I got comfy and decided to give this movie a whole chance, because if anything sums up grieving, while still managing be darkly funny, it’s the irrational anger you can feel at something like a stupid fucking beautiful sunset for just for having the audacity to exist in your presence.
Vanessa spends her soused evening thinking about Jennifer, and when she awakes, hungover, the next morning, Jennifer (Natalie Morales) calmly offers her a cup of coffee. She immediately goes to vomit, which is probably the standard reaction if your dead best friend hands you a cup of coffee, but I can’t actually speak from experience. Anyway, Jennifer is not actually Jennifer but a Species Observation Officer sent to study Vanessa for 48-hours to get an understanding of humans. She guzzles olive oil because the sun does bad things to her alien skin, or something like that, and speaks in a monotone, slightly robotic voice that is near perfection in how it just separates her emotionally, but also makes Vanessa’s emotional response’s feel so much rawer. Natalie Morales and Jillian Bell have incredible chemistry on screen. They crackle and sizzle with nuanced looks of love, frustration, confusion, and humor. Honestly, this movie is almost entirely just the two of them in conversation, so it sinks or floats based on their shared buoyancy. Thankfully they have plenty.
Vanessa, of course, makes sense of it all by assuming that she’s hallucinating due to the Xanax and champagne combo, and that this is to work through her lingering issues with Jennifer’s death. “You miss your best friend who died,” she says to herself and ET Jennifer, “so you conjured up this fucked up—no offense—alien version of her.” To which ET Jennifer simply responds, “Inaccurate.” When the ET version of Jennifer, who is extremely bothered by “these hair pouches” above her eyes, explains that she has access to all of human Jennifer’s memories, it is enough to convince Vanessa to agree to the observation, even if it does mean she might be losing her mind. Who wouldn’t agree to something similar for an extra couple of days with someone we love and desperately miss?
What follows is an often very funny, always extremely compassionate, and deeply intimate look at friendship, loss, letting go, and healing. It makes sense in the end if you think about it. Someone you love dying feels quite literally alien and other-worldly, so while the metaphor of an extra terrestrial may seem odd at first, in the able hands of writer Alisha Ketry, it’s just about the most damn apt thing I’ve ever seen.