Frank Lotito's GROWING UP SMITH is a charming slice of life for an Indian family in 1979 America
In director Frank Lotito's Growing Up Smith, one year is enough to provide a lifetime of memories for a little Indian boy plunked down in the midwest in 1979. The Bhatnagar family, father Bhaskar (Anjul Nigam), mother Nilani (Poorna Jagannathan from The Night Of), daughter Asha (Shoba Narayanan, and the youngest, son Smith (Roni Akurati) have immigrated to America in the late '70s to make their fortune and eventually return to India in style. However, while Bhaskar and Nilani play the roles of breadwinner and homemaker dutifully, they have no intention of leaving behind their way of life, even when the going gets tough as their children desperately try to make the best of their new surroundings.
Smith, a name given to the youngest in the family because his father wanted him to have the most American name possible, is as awkward a tween as they come. Gangly as a spider with Coke-bottle glasses, he tries with all his might to fit in, and does a pretty decent job, except when he's being singled out by the local bullies for torment. Luckily for him, he has a partner in crime, his very own ten-year-old Farrah Fawcett, the lovely Amy Brunner. A charming and effervescent girl who lives across the street and finds every bit of the Bhatnagar family's eccentricity utterly involving.
The pair quickly form a bond that looks like the early stages of puppy love, but neither of them is completely ready to accept that as a possibility, and so they merely stay in close orbit around one another, doing the cute little things ten-year-olds do to show they care. They get in trouble together, they get back out of trouble together, and they have each others backs when the bullies come knocking at the door. In Amy, Smith sees everything that he loves about the US, the openness, the freedom, the ability to be whatever he wants in defiance of his parents desire to see him as a neurosurgeon. In Smith, Amy sees the world, a place and a life outside of their podunk town, and the possibility that what she has in hand isn't all there is to life. And for these reasons, they are happy.
Not all is well among the Bhatnagar clan, though, and the elders are there to squash any ideas the children might have of becoming too American. Bhaskar is overbearing and demanding of his children, he wants to raise them as though they still live in India, but the social mores of home no longer exist, so he's in a constant state of tension as he struggles to drag them back under his command. This tension brings yet another influence into Smith's world, Amy's father, the aptly named Butch Brunner (Jason Lee).
When Smith wanders into the Brunner's garage after walking Amy home, he spies Butch working on an old Indian motorcycle and takes it as an omen. The two become fast friends and Smith has a new role model, one who represents the masculine side of the American dream that he wants. This pair have almost as many adventures as Smith and Amy, leading to just as many lasting memories and comical misunderstandings. Unfortunately, one of these misunderstandings takes Smith too far, and it's only a matter of time before he wakes from his dream life.
Growing Up Smith reminds me of some of the great coming of age stories of the last 40 years. The tone is very similar to the classic late '80s series The Wonder Years, but while that show spread out over several years, this one condenses the story and its multitude of highs and lows into a single year. In that regard it probably more closely resembles the boys of summer classic, The Sandlot. Both films feature a boy out of his depth looking to connect in a new place to people with whom he has nothing in common. If either of those films appeal to you, Growing Up Smith is a solid watch for kids of a certain age, or really anyone who has ever been a little bit different from those around them.
The film does employ a few too many deus ex machina tricks for my tastes, dropping unusually dramatic beats into an otherwise functioning story for the sake of expediency, but that's more of a grown up concern than the kind that would bother the film's intended audience. I watched it with my twelve year old son and it seemed to tick all the boxes that it intended to tick, and got a few hearty laughs from him in the process. It's not a perfect film, but apart from some unnecessarily heavy plot points, it's certainly enjoyable. It's hard to ask for more than that.