In White Elephant, the debut feature of writer-director Andrew Chung, we get a quick glimpse of how a high school rom-com plays out in a racialized North American context. Nuanced and well-executed, this 61-minute coming-of-age story with an immigrant experience thrown in is not only entertaining, but also unflinchingly honest, proving to be a surprising little gem.
The movie is set somewhere in Scarborough/Markham, Canada in the mid-1990s. Pooja (Zaarin Bushra), born in Canada to Indian parents, is a big fan of cheesy white American screen romance. When not watching, her favorite pastime is imagining herself as Juliet playing opposite her prince-charming Romeo. Because she’s from a minority neighborhood, her schoolmates are mostly black, brown, or from other non-white ethnic groups. Being high school kids, everyone seems insecure with charged emotions. This tension is made worse by Jamie (Amanda Catibog), a Trinidad girl who wouldn’t stop mocking Pooja for her lighter skin, chiding her for not being brown enough. Pooja is bothered by this because there’s a real disconnect between what she sees on screen and what she is experiencing in real life.
She feels increasingly lonely because neither Manpreet (Gurleen Singh) nor Amit (Dulmika Hapuarachchi), her two main friends at school, shares her passion. Then there’s her father, who constantly pressures her to watch Bollywood films with him at home and learn to speak Hindi. Somehow, she’s just not good enough for those around her.
Fed up, Pooja retreats further into her celluloid dreamworld and starts fantasizing about falling in love with a Caucasian dreamboat named Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) after discovering his habit of hanging out near her school. One day, Pooja musters up her courage and decides to strike up a conversation. She even asks him for his phone number. Although Trevor’s reaction is lukewarm, Pooja becomes increasingly infatuated with him, leading Amit to call her “white-washed” and “dumb” in front of her classmates.
Undaunted, Pooja holds out hope that she can still hook up with Trevor. That ends when she overhears him telling a friend how she smells like curry. Pooja explodes and channels her frustration at Manpreet, screaming: “You guys always act like you’re better than me…Jamie always harasses me, Amit never lets up, and you don’t say shit—nobody is ever there for me!” That’s when Manpreet spells it out for her: “You act like you’re one of them (white people). Pooja, you are not!” Until then, Pooja has been trying so hard to fit in she hasn’t paused to think that her self-perception might be misguided. Manpreet’s comments catches her off guard. The film comes to a head with a fight involving Trevor’s jealous girlfriend. In the end, Pooja must make an important decision: either she carries on with her old ways or takes a hard look at who she really is.
White Elephant can be difficult to watch because the race issues are hard-hitting and in your face. But the tightly-woven story aptly captures teenage angst atop an identity crisis in the complex racial dynamics of North American society. Chung, a Chinese-Canadian, merits big kudos for providing such an intimate look at a South Asian community in a Canadian suburban neighborhood—one that he’s not a native of. His decision to set the story in the 90s, before the Internet and cell phones, also works well, heightening the loneliness and identity confusion of the main character.
The film is not without its flaws. Bushra, a first-time actor cast in the role as Pooja, slightly overplays her part in the very beginning. The story could also have benefited from a closer look into the lead’s relationship with her first-generation dad and with Trevor. But overall, the film bears all the mark of a story well told. Layered, honest and very relatable, White Elephant ultimately sends an important message for young viewers: figuring out who you are as a minority in the larger Western society may be disorienting, but learning about yourself and loving who you are is essential and an important rite of passage.
White Elephant is available on demand as part of CAAMFest 2021 from May 13-23.
Karen Ma is a US-based independent film scholar and movie critic specializing in Chinese cinema. Her latest book is China’s Millennial Digital Generation: Conversations with Balinghou (post 1980s) Indie Filmmakers. Ma, a former Chinese culture and film lecturer at The Beijing Center of Chinese Studies, China, is also the author of The Modern Madame Butterfly and Excess Baggage, A Novel.