Directorial debuts are always fascinating, especially in the case of actors-turned-directors. Just look at what Rebecca Hall, Michael Sarnoski, and Maggie Gyllenhaal did in 2021 alone. Enter Sujata Day; you may know her from HBO’s “Insecure,” and now, she is gearing up for her directorial debut, “Definition Please,” to hit Netflix. “Definition Please” is a unique film that hones in on a very American story with characters that happen to be Indian. It’s a love letter to the representation of South Asian cultures and suburban Pennsylvania alike, and also tackles mental health without exploiting it.
“Definition Please” follows a former spelling bee champion, Monica (Day), who returns home to take care of her sick mother (Anna Khaja) and has to mend bridges with her brother, Sonny (Ritesh Rajan).
The greatest strength of “Definition Please” is how personal it feels. Day served as writer, producer, director, and lead actor, and the intimacy of the film begs the question of how much the story of the film is based on past experiences.
Those that have a sibling know that those relationships are like no other, and that makes them extremely hard to portray on screen in a way that feels natural. Day and Rajan are excellent as they play off the younger sister and older brother dynamic. The way the two bicker, compete, and care for each other feels natural, and the relationship between the two is one of the highlights of the entire film. While the ending of the film is wrapped up rather quickly, the brother and sister finally reconcile in a tear-jerker of a scene.
“Definition Please” is a story about fleeing the bird’s nest more than a character piece about mental health á la “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a film referenced in “Definition Please,” but that doesn’t mean that it shies away from mental health. As a result of Monica’s success and being the older brother, Sonny struggles with his mental health. Smartly, the film doesn’t beat you over the head with the theme of bipolar, unlike how “Broken Diamonds” crammed schizophrenia into its film or how “13 Reasons Why” used it as a plot device. In fact, it’s fair to say that bipolar is handled with the utmost respect in “Definition Please.” Sonny has a couple of outbreaks, but there are consequences to some of his actions in these moments, adding to how real the film feels.
But the believability of Sonny’s mental health struggles is mainly due to Ritesh Rajan’s performance. The young man gives a great, and deeply-emotional monologue about wanting to see Monica move on and begin making her dreams happen, instead of always making others’ dreams happen. Not only does he play off of Day well, but Rajan also portrays the child left in the shadows awfully well. We get the sense that Sonny is smart, but he spends his days at the gym as a trainer instead of being a doctor or something of higher prestige. No matter how much every parent denies it, there always is a favorite, and if you have a sibling, it’s almost guaranteed that they will relate to some of the things Sonny goes through throughout. As an older sibling, those scenes where a young Sonny had to take the blame for his younger sister, who is completely unaware of the consequences he faces, hit home.
Monica’s life isn’t much easier, as she spends her days prepping future spelling bee winners. Her superpower is spelling (no duh), which results in some humorous voiceovers where she explains a big word to viewers. These moments are sprinkled in throughout the film, not overdoing the bit. But Monica’s biggest challenge is allowing herself to move on. Of course, she has to come home and take care of her mother, but she becomes comfortable living at home again. That aforementioned monologue is powerful as it comes on the heels of Monica saying that she wants to stay in this area of Pennsylvania (who would willingly want to stay in suburban PA, anyway?), using the need to take care of her mother and brother as excuses. Sooner or later, however, flying away from the nest is necessary, and this arc felt a lot like Emilia Jones’ in “CODA.”
Sujata Day’s directorial debut, “Definition Please,” is a wonderful start for her directing career. The writing alone was impressive, and hopefully, people catch the film when it drops on Netflix. While it may seem like a basic premise of someone returning home to take care of their sick parent, “Definition Please” brings more to the table with its cast and heart. It’s truly a personal film, and a film with personal stakes in it generally makes for a very good film. You don’t need the fancy words that Day’s character explains throughout to express just how good this film is, and that is sublime.
“Insecure” will be available to stream on Netflix on January 21.