Review: Secrets and unresolved trauma fuel heartrending ‘Donkeyhead’
The plight of many children of immigrants, to measure up to parental expectations of traditional excellence or stray from them to carve out their own fulfillment, takes cheeky shape in “Donkeyhead,” a dramedy from first-time writer-director and star Agam Darshi.
Turned begrudgingly dutiful caretaker after her Sikh father’s cancer diagnosis, Mona (Darshi), an unpublished writer and daughter of Indian parents in Canada, has been in a professional and emotional rut for years. But after the patriarch suffers a stroke, her three career-driven siblings arrive from all over North America to make end-of-life arrangements.
Slowly, the individual aches of each of the adult children are laid out, often in a comedic tone. The target of judgment for underachieving, Mona constantly lashes out as she wrestles with the childhood abuse that still haunts her. The dramatic stakes have heft but Darshi undercuts it with too many half-baked subplots.
Mona is closest with twin brother Parm (Stephen Lobo), a model son with a major secret; thus their bond occupies a central place in coming to terms with who their father was. A terrifically written scene at a bar where Mona riles up patrons to belt out “O Canada” with drunken patriotism stands as both hilarious and telling of the identity limbo the twins inhabit.
Proficiently realized despite an overreliance on dissolves and fade-to-black transitions in its cinematic grammar, the film’s most notable setting is the home that houses the family’s memories and acts as contested battleground. Downstairs, relatives pray, while upstairs the nuclear family unravels as they try to find a way to move forward.
Darshi’s fantastic turn as Mona is reminiscent of Anne Hathaway’s role in “Rachel Getting Married”: a train wreck of a person hiding sorrow with charm and grasping at everything she can to halt her downward spiral before an irrevocable crash. With a wounded ferocity, she transmits the sincere ambivalence of the character’s feelings.
Caught between confrontation and compassion, the familiar but still heartrending “Donkeyhead” acknowledges that the hurt others inflict on us, though never excused, may indeed derive from their own unexpressed and unresolved trauma. The adage applies not only to the distressed protagonist but to all the parties involved here.
In English and Punjabi with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Available Jan. 21 on Netflix
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