DEFINITION PLEASE – Review by Carol Cling

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Some definitions you find in a dictionary. Some definitions you find on your own.

Both notions play a role in Definition Please, a genial, insightful feature debut from writer-director — and star — Sujata Day that explores the changing ways one young woman defines her life.

The movie’s title signals protagonist Monica Chowdry’s claim to (literal) fame: as a national spelling bee champion, one of many American-born children of South Asian immigrants fulfilling their parents’ dreams of success. (The documentary Spelling the Dream explores this phenomenon in detail.)

Yet unlike the myriad spelling champs who have gone on to stellar careers in law, science and medicine, Monica (played by Esha Chundru as a girl and the droll, deadpan Day as an adult) has gone home.

Not just to her hometown of Greensburg, Pa., where she tutors young spelling-bee hopefuls, but to the home of her widowed mother Jaya (Anna Khaja, working the long-suffering bit for all it’s worth).

Sure, Monica’s got a great job offer at a clinical research lab — in Cleveland. But if Monica goes, who’s going to look after Jaya and her assorted medical maladies?

Certainly not Monica’s strapping older brother Sonny (the deceptively blithe Ritesh Rajan), who decamped to California long ago — and has only returned to take part in Hindu “deathiversary” rituals for the late family patriarch.

Along with its primary focus on the fractious family dynamic, Definition Please widens its scope to include (among others) Monica’s bartender best friend (Lalaine), plus a former classmate of Monica’s (Jake Choi) with definite hook-up potential. To say nothing of one of Monica’s pupils (Maya Kapoor), who’s not at all sure she wants to be a spelling bee champ — despite the plans of her overbearing mother (Meera Simhan).

Day’s screenplay juggles disparate elements — from comedy to melodrama to musical interludes — while punctuating the proceedings with droll examples of Monica’s “word nerd” essence. Throughout, literal dictionary definitions highlight her voluminous vocabulary. Fortunately, there’s not much cabotinage — defined as “behavior befitting a second-rate actor, playing to the crowd.”

Definition Please occasionally grinds its gears shifting between its relaxed, ruefully humorous moments — especially Monica and Sonny’s long-running Sibling Rivalry Show — and deeper, more dramatic undercurrents.

Even when the movie’s straining to get where it’s going, however, we’re more than willing to go along with it — thanks to a memorable set of characters defined by heartfelt, all-too-human comedy.

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Carol Cling

Carol Cling served as the Las Vegas Review-Journal's film critic for more than 30 years, reviewing movies and covering movie and TV production in Las Vegas, from Casino to CSI. An honors graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, she also has studied film at the American Film Institute and the BBC