SXSW 2017 Review & Interview: THE BIG SICK

By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

At this year’s festival, I enjoyed two comedies about inter-cultural relationships and their impact on familial relations.  The first is a truly delightful indie film titled Signature Move, while the other is the Festival Favorite Headliner The Big Sick.  Both films deal with Pakistani-Americans from Muslim upbringings trying to find a balance between familial relations /cultural traditions and doing what feels right as individuals, but both films handle the material in their own great ways.  To be fair to the great people behind both films, I won’t say much more about Signature Move here.  I will post a review of the film very soon.  In case anyone missed it, be sure to check out my interview with the people behind it.

Now, regarding The Big Sick, the film is based on the true story behind the relationship between comic/actor Kumail Nanjiani and wife Emily V. Gordon.  Kumail stars as a slightly fictional version of himself, an aspiring Pakistani-American standup comic who meets a smart and witty grad student named Emily (played by actress Zoe Kazan).  The two reluctantly engage in a romantic relationship, but things come to a head when Emily comes to the realization Kumail has serious qualms about a future together.  His strict, Muslim background and his parents’ desire for Kumail to marry within his culture are what holds him back from committing to Emily completely.  When Emily becomes tremendously ill, this event allows Kumail to bond with Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) and makes him seriously contemplate about what future he wants for himself.

Written by Nanjiani and Gordon and directed by Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name Is Doris), The Big Sick is highly lovable and heartfelt film that should inspire people to find the strength to pursue one’s own path in life.  The film also teaches some valuable lessons about how to pursue that, but with much affection and respect for one’s family and loved ones.  Nanjiani and Gordon’s screenplay might be slightly transparent, but they do a great job taking their audiences through their journey with much heart and superbly written and executed humor.  The film features superb performances by the entire cast, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano delivering some amazing scene stealing moments.  The film serves as a wonderful affirmation of life, love, family and culture and refreshingly offers a lovely portrait of the life of an American Muslim family, which is often in short supply.

The day after the screening, it was with much joy that I participated in a round table interview with Kumail and Emily.  The two talked about telling their story and how they hope audiences receive it.  Kumail and Emily first discussed the reasons why they wanted to make this movie based on their relationship and its rocky beginning.  (Kumail Nanjiani) “I have been doing standup and telling stories from my life and I felt that this was this big, huge, crazy story that I felt had to be told.  I knew that if we did a good job a lot of people would connect with it.  Emily added, “As specific as this story is, you could not make this story up, and we felt it would resonate with all kinds of people.”

I asked Kumail and Emily about how they hoped their film would impact the xenophobia and controversy directed towards people of Muslim backgrounds in America.  Kumail stated, ” I love movies that make me more optimistic and hopeful and I would hope that our movie makes people feel optimistic and hopeful.” Emily added, “Half of my family is now Muslim and I have gotten to see Muslim people in ways that other white people don’t get to see them.  I got to see them having fun, hanging out, and I thought it was really important for others to see that in a movie–to see Muslim people in a movie that aren’t planning a terrorist attack or on an episode of Homeland.  It is something that I have this gift of seeing that I want other people to see too.”

I asked Kumail about this life experience and how he managed to seek out a non-traditional career, and marry outside of his culture while maintaining a relationship from his one-time, strictly traditional parents and family.  “It’s a process,” Kumail stated. “In the movie me and the family take ‘step one’ of fifty, when in real life we are at ‘step thirty-three.’ For a long time they wouldn’t talk about my work or career, but now they are very proud of me.  Part of what this movie is about is when you grow up, you have to learn to have another relationship with your parents–sort of as peers.  You have to learn to have a relationship as adults. You have to be true to yourself, while still trying to not disappoint your family in ways that cannot be remedied.  You have to find the balance of what is true about you and how to communicate it to them in a way without ruining your relationship.”

The Big Sick won the audience award in the “Festival Favorites” category.  It is a highly entertaining and heartwarming movie that is sure to please audiences when it gets released in theaters this summer.




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