In one of many poignant scenes in Fran Kranz’ harrowing school shooting drama Mass, a victim’s mother pontificates that her son’s death should mean something. And it’s a sentiment that comes to mind in Yellow Bus, the similarly tragic debut feature from Wendy Bednarz. Specifically, it explores the fallout when a freak accident causes a young schoolgirl to die in a locked schoolbus, forcing her mother into a desperate search for meaning and justice.
Yellow Bus is set in an unidentified location in the Arabian Gulf, where a working class immigrant Indian family goes through a typical routine to provide for their nuclear family of two parents and two daughters. On one fateful day, however, disaster strikes after the sisters are sent to school. Upon their arrival, the younger daughter Anju is fast asleep, refusing to wake despite her sister’s efforts. The bus soon empties, leaving Anju still sleeping. Hours later, she is found dead from hyperthermia, setting up her mother’s dramatic quest for answers.
As Ananda endures her worst nightmare, Bednarz’ script points to various sources of negligence. From a bus attendant to a stoic school administrator (Mira, played by Kinda Alloush), various characters get caught in the web of the blame game, reminiscent of ensemble dramas typical of Asghar Farhadi. But unfortunately, the writing isn’t layered enough to add further complexity to the drama.
The premise is ripe for the film’s underlying social critique though. Indeed, Bednarz gestures towards class conflict and racial prejudice through mentions of deportation and the profileration of Indian immigrants. But as the pieces of the puzzle are put together, these factors feel almost anecdotal. The specific politics at play are undermined by the ambiguity of the setting – the film is conspicuously lacking in landmarks despite significant drone footage – and the wealth disparity only feels relevant when we explore the personal life of Mira, the story’s underdeveloped “villain.”
While the investigation into Anju’s death feels undercooked, the film fares much better as a family drama. As the trio clash with their varying degrees of what justice for Anju looks like, Bednarz finds true complexity in their perspectives. And the richest character study comes from the irrepressible Ananda, portrayed with real grit by Tannishtha Chatterjee. As much as Ananda is dedicated to finding the truth, so too is Chatterjee unwavering in getting to the heart of the character.
In the end, Yellow Bus falls short of an incisive critique of the Arabian Gulf’s social structure. Instead, it presents a somewhat broad example of how the machinery of capitalism often harms society’s most vulnerable. While films are often praised for being universal, Yellow Bus suffers from the uncertain targets of its social commentary. Much like the grieving mother at the center of the story, the audience may also struggle to find the deeper meaning of it all.