Minari

You know what I hate? When people say, “It’s good, but it’s not that good.” You know why I hate it? Because I’ve said it plenty of times myself. I mean, it does come from an honest place. Usually I invoke it for a movie that’s been impossibly hyped in the lead up to its wide release.

Minari is one of those hyped up movies. Critics are losing their shit for it. It’s currently at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. Well, I saw it. I dug it. And yeah, at the risk of more self-loathing…no, I won’t say it. This one is solid, and I’ll take good any day.

The movie’s set in the 80s, but not garishly so. It took me a good fifteen minutes before I even realized it. There are no obvious (or any, really) 80s needle drops and even the fashion is, for the most part, pretty tame. It helps that the movie’s set in rural Arkansas, not exactly the epicenter of haute couture and music. The story follows a family that’s uprooted themselves from California so the father can pursue his dream of becoming a farmer.

His dream, though, might be more of an obsession.

But it’s an obsession born out of relatable desperation. Jacob and his wife, Monica, work at a hatchery. They sift through baby chicks, separating male from female. You don’t want to know what happens to the male chicks (…why am I not vegan again?) As Jacob watches the black smoke rise from the incinerator, his 8-year old son, David, asks him why they suffer such a fate. Jacob, staring at the billowing fumes, replies something like, “that’s what happens when you’re useless.”

Farming is Jacob’s absolution from staring at “chicken’s asses all day,” a chance to do something meaningful with his life.

The question is, at what cost? His ambition comes at the price of his family’s misery. He moves them to a long trailer out in the middle of nowhere, its nowhere-ness nicely established by the opening credits, which have Monica following Jacob off the beaten path, and even further until there is no path, and further until they finally reach the beige rectangle sitting in the middle of tall grass that they’re supposed to call home. Monica’s expression at the sight of it says it all. You moved us here for this?! 

The movie is mostly seen through the eyes of little David and the story, as you might expect, plays out in vignettes as the family tries to acclimate to their new home while Jacob attempts to get the farm off the ground.

What surprised me about the film was its humor. Some of it is obvious, like Monica’s grandmother, who comes to live with them and whose demeanor comes close to Vanessa Redgrave “Hauling ass to Lollapalooza” territory. Some of it, though, reminded me of Roberto Benigni’s eternal patience in setting up a gag early and letting it come to fruition much later. References are made to Mountain Dew early on. David loves it. Grandma loves it. It seems like an 80s detail at best and product placement at worst. Eventually, about half-way through, Grandma asks David to bring her a glass of the soda, but David, who hates grandma because he has to share his room with her and because she’s not a “typical” grandma, has other plans, and, well, I’ll let you see what happens for yourself. It’s crude, but it’s so well set up and played out that I laughed.

Yeah, some of the movie is dangerously twee, but it tends to back off at just the right moments. There’s a dash of Little Miss Sunshine kookiness for kookiness’ sakes, but it’s more sufferable than in-. The characters aren’t just caricatures, parading around the movie just to be weird.  Grandma isn’t simply a foul-mouthed gambler, and Will Patton’s Paul, who helps Jacob on the farm, isn’t just a babbling religious fanatic. There’s a warmth and multiple facets to most of the film’s characters.   

Of course, this being an indie drama, that humor dissipates by the third act. It is kind of typical in that way and maybe that’s why I’m more luke than warm towards the movie. It works well at being a mold rather than breaking from it.

Minari still works, and I’m gIad I saw it. But I still bristle at the hype because I’m not sure if it’s a result of the film’s content so much as a love of its point of view.

You see, I left a little something out until now. Not because it isn’t important. It is. Jacob and his family are Korean American. Most of the movie is in Korean with English subtitles. That specificity brings a welcome viewpoint we don’t see often enough in American productions.

But, while the Korean viewpoint is important, the universality of their experiences is also.

Interestingly, the Korean experience presented in the film doesn’t go down the path I expected. The Arkansas community seems to welcome the Yi family warmly. Though maybe the wives harping around Monica and cooing , “Oh, aren’t you just the cutest thang” is just racial condescension. But if the movie is praised more as some kind of a woke flex than for its actual content, isn’t that condescending also? Because the content here is good, but, ugh, I’m getting nauseated just thinking about writing it, it’s not that good.

-Pavel Klein


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