Viette, a drama directed by and starring Mye Hoang, starts off in sexy-sexy mode, as a high school girl and her boyfriend go at it hot and heavy in the back seat of a compact car, and then carry on their lovemaking in the intimacy of an actual bed. But that's only one component in the life of Viette, who is also a dutiful daughter of conservative, tradition-minded Vietnamese parents.
Viette is a senior, so she's feeling the weight of collegiate anticipation common to her tight-knit group of friends, with the added pressure of her parents' strict expectations. Her mother scolds her; her father ignores her. Her older sister harangues her as well, leaving Viette to mope about, sullen and morose, the very picture of a middle-class, depressed suburban teen in the Clinton-era U.S. of the 1990s. She shows only rare flashes of joy -- after making love to her boyfriend, announcing the results of her college applications -- to the point that we're expecting the worst possible outcome for her.
And something quite chilling does happen, and the focus shifts to the adult relationship between Viette and Matt (Sean McBride). He has been steady and supportive, but as the years pass, something below the surface begins to emerge, and Viette faces challenges she never anticipated.
The film is surprisingly ambitious, with the different periods of Viette's life (high school, college, and beyond) presented in somewhat varying narrative style, ranging from a month-to-month chronicle to 'highlights from a relationship' to a nearly impressionistic perspective. It doesn't always work; sometimes the jumps are a bit too abrupt, without enough connective tissue to support how the characters are reacting and changing.
What is captured here, however, is an everyday, intimate portrait of a young woman, apparently informed by personal observation and experience, and filmed in a fluid, visually appealing manner. The tone of the film reflects Viette's character: quiet, respectful, meditative, sensual, and matter-of-fact, with sufficient dramatic momentum to keep pushing the story along.
It adds up to a keenly-observed, deeply affecting character study.
[Full disclosure: Filmmaker Mye Hoang is a friend who introduced me to the world of film festivals a decade ago. So I may not be entirely objective.]
Viette screens as a World Premiere at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival on Saturday, March 10, and again on Sunday, March 18. Check the festival's website for more information.