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Montclair Film Festival Review: ‘Minari’ is an Intimate Look at Assimilation

Courtesy of A24
A24

A darling for nearly all who have seen it since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Minari is undeniably lovely. It makes sense, too, since this scratches so many of the itches that are necessary to turn an independent drama into a crossover success. At the same time, for someone like myself who likes but doesn’t out and out love the movie, it can seem slightly strange. After all, no one wants to shrug their shoulders at something as warm and empathetically realized as this. Luckily, I’m hardly shrugging my shoulders, even if I’m not exactly ready to bang the drum for this one to win a handful of Academy Awards. Playing at the Montclair Film Festival, it’s a highlight, to be sure, even if I only found it good, while others have deemed it great.

Minari is an affecting indie drama, one that details a very specific immigrant experience in an easily relatable and universal manner.

It’s a weird feeling to feel like you’ve seen a different movie than everyone else, but it’s important to be true to one’s own response to a flick. Especially with awards season fare like this, it’s hard not to doubt your opinion. But then again, it’s just that…an opinion. Take my thoughts with a grain of salt, just like you should anyone else’s. At the end of the day, all that matters is how you ultimately feel about the picture. That being said, no one should mistake this for anything else than a positive review, since that’s what it is.

A24

Taking place in the 1980s, the film follows a young Korean-American family that has moved from California to a tiny farm in Arkansas. There, they hope to find permanent roots, all in the search for their own small version of the American Dream. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Yeri Han), daughter Soonj (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan S. Kim) have very different reactions to Arkansas life, with Monica having the hardest time. Jacob and Monica have menial jobs to start, while the former dreams of growing crops on his land, which will signal a much needed success for the lot.

The family, as expected, struggles, both with assimilation as well as with cultivation. Then, the family, as well as their home, totally changes when the children’s grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) arrives. She may be foul-mouthed and unconventional, but she’s also incredibly loving, providing a necessary new dynamic. Easing tensions between the spouses, she also makes for amusing company with her grandchildren. This added dynamic, while not initially welcomed by all, becomes a key to life changing for the better. The Ozarks may not be a typical place for a Korean-American family to set up shop, but this one is determined to make it work.

Steven Yeun is best in show here, no doubt about that. Getting one of his top showcases to date, he embodies his patriarch with dedication and determination, as well as love. He’s not a larger than life figure, but he’s a figure that a son would always find something to be proud about, even during lesser moments. Yeun does a lot here, earning every bit of the praise he’s received throughout this year. Yeri Han is quite good here, too, as is young Alan S. Kim and Yuh-Jung Youn, but Yeun takes the cake, overall.

A24

Filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung effectively chronicles a deeply personal story in Minari. Chung imbues it all with a gentle realism that makes you feel like you are there. If there’s a misstep, it’s the sequences with Will Patton as a local man who Jacob helps and is helped by. Patton is fine, but the scenes are repetitive and don’t really add much to the narrative. It’s a rare flaw in an otherwise rock solid flick, one that’s warmly captured by cinematographer Lachlan Milne. Overall, Minari has a lovely yet deeply realistic vibe. It always feels like Chung is remembering his childhood, whether it’s romanticized or not.

Awards wise, the film represents a real X factor. On the one hand, it’s such a small flick, it’s possible that it follows in the indie footsteps of recent darlings like The Farewell and Uncut Gems, ultimately being snubbed by Oscar after precursor attention. On the other hand, it’s not a stretch to see the unique year that is 2020 open up voters to a somewhat unique possibility like this one. Yeun will be in the conversation for Best Actor, and if he can get in there, a Best Picture citation is hardly out of the question.

Minari represents not just a top tier Montclair Film Festival offering this year, but a very good indie drama, too. Even if I’m not shouting from the rooftops about it, this is still a hearty thumbs up to a movie that does almost nothing wrong. Others may rave about it more, but this solid three star review still represents a part of the growing chorus urging you to check out this A24 release when it eventually hits screens.

SCORE: ★★★

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Written by Joey Magidson

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