The afterschool special is alive and well in immigration drama “Festival Of Lights,” an amateurish independent film tracking the evolution of one family in their path from Guyana to America, and the roots they leave behind. Forgive a generation of filmmakers, well-intentioned, but unaware that nuance and subtlety are missing from their arsenal, soldiering on with incidence. “Festival Of Lights” is nothing if not busy, hop-scotching around hot-button satellite issues to the main concern of immigration like Darren Aronofsky’s camera operator lost in the K-hole.
“Festival Of Light” follows young Reshna (Melinda Shankar) from her childhood in Guyana to her teenage lifestyle in America. As a child, her father Vishnu (Jimi Mistry) would take her to the Diwali festival, as they enjoyed the street fair as a family despite a hostile atmosphere that threatens their livelihood. A frantic home invasion by guerillas occurs just next door: Reshna’s mother Meena (Ritu Singh Pande) peers through the window, more curious than concerned, as Vishnu sleeps, conditioned to ignore. Thanks to family living stateside, they have the resources to find a way to America. But a slight fudging of paperwork leaves Dad behind.
Years later, Reshna’s father is but a distant memory, and she’s grown up to become a petulant teen heartbreaker. Fights with her mother are frequent: in fact, every conversation seems to revolve around Meena’s struggles to bring the family stateside, and the complete lack of communication with Vishnu. She rebels with a load of extracurriculars, including one detour that results in a moment of sexual violation by a classmate. While she does not report this interaction, he continues to taunt her, grinning like a hungry wolf when he sees her.
A fight between Reshna and her mother leads to Reshna being kicked out of the house, and she attempts to rebuild her life with another family. This leads to a refocus on school, which leads to college, which leads to a host of other complications. If “Festival of Lights” was based on a true story, it would feel like a checklist of the events that shaped Reshna. Because it’s not, it’s even less defined, particularly considering poor Shankar is forced to play an entirely reactive role, a character who fulfills her obligation to scream, cry, and flee from trouble. Despite intimations that she is finally shaping her own future, in a similar vein to her mother’s journey to America, the actress is given no onscreen agency that can be attributed to her actions. Does she take the SAT and apply to NYU? Not onscreen. Do they offer her salvation and she grabs it? Most certainly. There’s so little to back this up that it feels as if NYU merely picks students out of a massive hat.
A final reel shift into suspense thriller feels like the film’s very last concession to throwing in the kitchen sink, as if not nearly enough has happened to our characters. All the while, we’re forced to seek a twist, a hidden theme, or even a threat from Adem, Meena’s new American husband. As played by Aidan Quinn at his oily best, Adem is frequently sloshed throughout the narrative, but allowed to up the skeeze factor, Quinn plays his snarly, uninformed interloper as an opportunist, easily attracted to Meena’s considerable beauty. As he cups a wine glass at a party, it almost feels like they should have given him a pussycat to stroke, or a big red button over which to hover. Like the rest of the miscalculated “Festival Of Lights,” it’s a gross violation of tone akin to a Tyler Perry effort, tone-deaf and dedicated to forcing its narrative ahead at the sacrifice of sense or pleasure. [D+]
“Festival Of Lights” is now playing in limited release.