3 Stars (out of 4)
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Growing Up Smith is a funny, relatable coming-of-age story about an Indian boy’s attempt to adapt to American small-town life.
Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) is ten years old, living somewhere in Oklahoma with his family in 1979. Smith’s father, Bhaaskhar (Anjul Nigam, who co-wrote the screenplay), longed so much to come to the United States that he chose the most American name he could think of for his only son. Unfortunately, Bhaaskhar didn’t realize that “Smith” is a last name, not a first name.
The members of the family — father, son, mother Nalini (Delhi Belly‘s Poorna Jagannathan), and teenage sister Asha (Shoba Narayan) — enjoy life in their new country. Bhaaskhar loves his money-saving vegetable garden, and Asha likes the handsome boys, especially her classmate, Patrick (Paul Castro, Jr.).
Of all the things Smith likes about America — Star Wars, disco, John Travolta — his favorite is his pretty next-door-neighbor, Amy (Brighton Sharbino). Amy happens to be one of the few townsfolk interested in the Bhatnagar’s Indian heritage. She doesn’t flinch when the family offers her a vegetarian meal (flinching being the standard Midwestern response to vegetarianism until approximately 2008, as I can attest).
Amy’s friendship helps Smith navigate the usual pitfalls of adolescence like bullies, but also culture-specific problems, such as his parents’ inability to appreciate the importance of Halloween for kids in the States. Amy’s working-class dad, Butch (Jason Lee), takes it upon himself to teach Smith how to be an American man.
Growing Up Smith is humorous yet tender in the way it deals with Smith’s problems. A clever and occasionally bombastic score by Michael Lira guides the tone of the film, hearkening back to earlier Hollywood coming-of-age comedies like A Christmas Story.
The story poses interesting questions about raising children in a foreign country. Bhaaskhar regularly threatens to send his kids back to India when they act up, but how much of their misbehavior is due to their increasing Americanization, and how much is typical kid stuff they’d do no matter where they lived? Asha is skilled at getting away with mischief, simply shouting “Bye” on her way out the door to trick her folks into believing they already gave her permission to leave.
The time period in which the story is set also plays an important part. This is well before the age of cell phones and GPS, a time when parents had to hop in the car to track down their missing offspring. Not only are the Bhatnagars the only Indian family around, they aren’t even in regular contact with their own relatives. Smith describes a phone call to India as “an expensive and rare event.” Do Bhaaskhar and Nalini feel compelled to enforce a stricter set of culturally appropriate rules than if they had other Indian parents around to talk to? Smith and Asha are also deprived of peers who really understand their issues, such as their prearranged marriages.
These issues are only an undercurrent to a story that focuses on the antics of its charming junior protagonist. Akurati makes Smith impossible to dislike, barrelling down the street on his bicycle, wearing a helmet several sizes too big. The rest of the family is endearing, too, as is Sharbino as Amy. Lee’s performance is the only one that sometimes feels out of sync with the rest of the cast.
Just like its main character, Growing Up Smith is hard not to like. Here’s where to meet Roni Akurati and Anjul Nigam at one of the special screenings they are hosting around the country: