Starring- Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Claudine Vinasithamby, Vincent Rottiers, Faouzi Bensaidi, Marc Zinga, Bass Dhem
Director- Jacques Audiard
R- violence, language and brief sexuality/nudity
In Sri Lanka, two strangers, Dheepan (Jesuthasan Antonythasan) and Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), find a war-orphaned girl (Claudine Vinasithamby) and sell themselves as a family in order to find passage to France as refugees.
Dheepan is a good movie held back mainly by its adherence to its well-worn story. It’s not so much what it does as what it doesn’t do. From frame one, it promises to be something new, interesting, and even educational — the story of the modern refugee has been told, but not particularly often, so there’s plenty of room to further explore its dynamics; moreover, I think it’s fair to say the average person in the west knows little to nothing about the Sri Lankan civil war, leaving the movie with a certain mandate to make that situation real for its viewers, to capture its nuance and the specific ways it impacted those who experienced it. Few films have been better positioned to offer a fresh perspective on recent historical events — lead actor Jesuthasan Antonythasan was a Tamil Tiger as a teenager and currently has refugee status.
So it’s strange that Dheepan instead chooses to be a fairly ordinary family drama/slow burn thriller — a compelling and well-made one, to be sure, but ordinary just the same. It engages, but it isn’t terribly interesting. It forces you to ask plenty of questions — what is it like to be a refugee? What politics/morality underlie this situation? How do you see the desperation of the situation you’re currently in when your mind remains on all of the people in your home country who would give anything to have what you have? What is the effect of three strangers playacting a family in order to preserve their lives without functioning like one behind the scenes? And it just never engages them.
There’s a lot to explore here, but the movie settles for something more straightforward. It’s partly an awards season sort of family drama about three characters who don’t know each other being thrown together and slowly becoming their own sort of family, and it’s partly an indie thriller about refugees dealing with being resettled in a rough neighborhood on the precipice of a drug war. Both story arcs proceed simply and end up more or less where you’d expect them to. They’re both well-done, with solid characters, strong atmosphere, and a leading trio of universally outstanding performances — but they’re well-done in ways I’ve seen before.
To me, this story never felt specific enough — it plays out as though this is a generic bad situation with no layers other than the obvious ways in which it affects its characters’ respective emotional states. With minimal changes, the movie could have been about anyone — that they’re refugees only provides a reason for the three leads to be drawn together, and somewhat heightens their sense of isolation in their new home, due to the language and cultural barriers (the former of which seems somewhat easily resolved). But the movie isn’t building on any of that nuance, simply incorporating it in the foreground of a much more familiar narrative. I’m not convinced it completely earns the ending at which it arrives.
I think part of the problem may be that it’s stuck in a difficult place on the “show, don’t tell” scale, where it wants to drop you in the middle of a situation without a lot of fanfare and also tell much of its story by implication and the effect is that a lot of it is too vague. Even as a family drama/thriller, its emotional ends require that the audience have a detailed sense of its characters’ inner lives, but I never felt like I was in their heads. I like that the movie includes little bits of texture here and there, solely to give its characters lives outside of the frame — that Dheepan is a tinkerer who uses common household items to craft makeshift tools for himself and to create little pieces of art, for example. But that’s all it is — texture, something that’s nice to have but isn’t a substitute for psychology. The movie forces you to reinvent its protagonists as you go; their personalities occasionally make jarring leaps that aren’t forecast in any way. The character development is happening beneath the surface, and if you aren’t tuned into the movie’s exact wavelength, certain things aren’t going to make sense.
Ultimately, what Dheepan needs is a more interesting perspective. Jesuthasan certainly has a story to tell, but my impression is that his consultation on the film consisted mainly of correcting inaccuracies in the French writers’ script. I’m now reading that director Jacques Audiard intended to make a variation of the movie Straw Dogs set in a community most people don’t know about and just happened to settle on Sri Lankan refugees. Those puzzle pieces are clues as to how Dheepan might have arrived at its broad storyline despite the real-world specificity of the events it depicts.
This is coming across more critical than I intend. It’s easier to fixate on this than the acting or direction being strong; I don’t know what to say on those subjects other than that they’re strong. Dheepan is a fine film and worth seeing; it’s just a shadow of the more interesting film that sometimes starts to take shape around it.