Entertainment

'Growing Up Smith' is a charming look at the perils of cultural assimilation

Posted April 28

“GROWING UP SMITH” — 2½ stars — Jason Lee, Roni Akurati, Anjul Nigam, Brighton Sharbino, Hilarie Burton; PG-13 (language and brief drug use); Broadway

In "Growing Up Smith," director Frank Lotito applies a lighthearted touch to some serious issues.

Smith Bhatnagar (Roni Akurati) is a 10-year-old Indian boy living in the United States. It’s 1979, so Smith constantly has to clarify to everyone that he is actually from India, even though his peers clearly would be more interested in someone in a headdress.

Like many immigrants, Smith is living in two worlds. He just wants to be an all-American boy, and embrace the Old West lifestyle he imagines all around him. But his father Bhaaskar (Anjul Nigam) is desperately clinging to his Indian heritage.

This becomes especially problematic when Smith falls in love with the “girl next door” who lives across the street. Amy (Brighton Sharbino) is the daughter of Butch Brunner (Jason Lee), the local tow truck operator, and from the public displays of affection his wife, Nancy (Hilarie Burton), shows Butch when he comes home every day, Smith imagines them as the perfect all-American family.

Unfortunately, Bhaaskar has already arranged for Smith to marry a young girl he’s never met, who is currently back in India. His older sister Asha (Shoba Narayan) is also betrothed, even though she’s constantly sneaking out to be with a local boy under the guise of studying with an anonymous classmate named “Betsy.”

For the most part, “Growing Up Smith” is a low-key comedy, with a plot that explores the various cultural conflicts that relentlessly impede Smith’s day-to-day life. Amy and her family come over for a barbecue (Bhaaskar calls it a “metal grilling contest”), unaware that Smith’s family are vegetarian. When Halloween rolls around, Smith wants to be Darth Vader, but winds up in a homemade Ganesh costume instead.

The religious theme pops up frequently in “Growing Up Smith.” Smith is constantly seeing conflicts between his cultural faith and the predominant Christian faith held by everyone else in the neighborhood but the Brunners. Some valuable insights are offered, but too often Christianity is offered up in its stereotypical judgmental fanatic form to be genuinely insightful.

There’s a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” vibe to a lot of the proceedings, right up to the adult narrator and the comically overstated father figure, who doesn’t seem to get enough breaks to evolve past his two-dimensional rendering. It would be easy to look past curiosities like this, but as the plot moves into its third act, the story winds up in an unexpected place that feels a little ambiguous about the message it is trying to send.

At the same time, “Growing Up Smith” offers enough moments of innocent charm to distract viewers from its bigger flaws, and Akurati is an appealing lead to relate to, even if you’ve never been an ethnic minority. As adult Smith (played by Samrat Chakrabarti) describes his childhood formula for Americana — a mix of “Happy Days,” “Saturday Night Fever” and Kentucky Fried Chicken — it’s amusing to note the boy is more American than he realizes.

Lee provides the kind of welcome down-to-earth good-old-boy charm he used in TV’s “My Name is Earl” and Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” Even in his limited time onscreen, the unfolding of his particular subplot is a sober lesson in the difference between childhood perception and adult reality. It’s a perspective that “Growing Up Smith” strains for, even if it doesn’t always reach it.

“Growing Up Smith” is rated PG-13 for language and brief drug use; running time: 102 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.

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