A compelling immigrant narrative is marred by a weak script and acting in Ela Thier’s ‘Foreign Letters’

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The girls stand outside Thuy’s apartment building.

In 1982, a young girl and her family must adjust to life as immigrants in America after leaving Israel to escape war. While exchanging letters with her best friend back home, the young daughter finds a new, lifelong friend in a quiet Vietnamese girl in her class. Based on her own childhood, Ela Thier’s Foreign Letters (2012) chronicles the struggles of assimilating to a new language and culture while yearning for the one you left. Unfortunately, its engaging subject matter does not cancel out its weak script and static acting. (RMM: 2.5/5)

Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan

In an era before email (1982, to be more exact), pre-teen “Ellie” (Noa Rotstein) spends her first weeks in America exchanging letters with her best friend Shlomit in Israel. In order for her father (Udi Razzin) to avoid mandatory military service in a war that he and her mother (Ela Thier) don’t support, they’ve fled the country. Life in suburban Connecticut might be quieter than their life back in Israel, but it certainly isn’t easy. The family must navigate a society of foreign rules, a foreign culture, and a foreign language. 

Ellie’s first day of 6th gradel is nerve-wracking, to say the least. She barely speaks English, and nobody else speaks Hebrew. Though they probably aren’t trying to be mean, the other kids are not at all sensitive to Ellie’s feelings or the difficulty of her situation. In a particularly heartbreaking scene, Ellie tries to find someone to sit with in the cafeteria. In broken English, she asks if she can sit with a group of girls but misunderstands when they say she can’t because the seat is saved. One girl whispers to another that “she doesn’t speak English,” and the girls say “no” even louder. As she begins English lessons, Ellie writes her observations of American life and culture to Shlomit. 

When Ellie first sees the shy “Thuy” (Dalena Le), she wonders if they could be friends. Though Thuy claims to be too busy with her studies, she finally agrees to spend a day with Ellie, who is overjoyed. The two soon become inseparable, spending most of their free time together in the forest and at each other’s houses. Though Thuy now speaks English perfectly, she too struggled to fit in when she came to America from Vietnam as a child. She understands, to a degree, Ellie’s plight. And while the new best friends will go through some rough patches in their friendship, they will come out with an even stronger bond than before. 

Thuy teaches Ellie a traditional Vietnamese dance

The subject matter of Foreign Letters (2012) is both fascinating to delve into and a valuable narrative to see. Frankly, any story detailing immigrant life in America is worth watching because, as an American, you might not think much about the foreigner’s experience in your country. You don’t recognize the particular privilege you have as a native; your intelligence will never be questioned based on your English skills. You’ll never have to assimilate into a culture just to be accepted by those around you. As an immigrant or a child of immigrants in America, you probably know all too well the challenges that Ellie and her family face, as well as the accompanying feelings of frustration and despair. In Ellie, I see both my mother (who came from Uzbekistan) and my father (who fled war in Azerbaijan). Whenever she is made to feel stupid because she can’t articulate herself in English, I think of the nearly identical struggle that my own family has faced. All too often, as the natives, we can forget that culture and intellect exist outside our sphere of language.

Struggle aside, Ellie’s perspective itself on American life and culture compels us to watch. She writes to Shlomit that “in America, they use a machine to sharpen their pencils” and “there are restaurants inside the school.” Apparently, mechanical pencil sharpeners and cafeterias are not the norm in Israeli schools. Ellie can’t believe how much you can get for free in America. Her mother has amassed an impressively large collection of produce section plastic bags, plastic knives and forks, and sugar packets. Perhaps she doesn’t yet know that the unspoken rule is to take only one of each. American holidays are strange to Ellie, and seeing them through her fresh, foreign eyes is tremendous fun.

Still, I am saddened to see Ellie lose touch with aspects of herself in the name of assimilation. As she becomes more enveloped in American life, she drifts further away from the culture that raised her. On Simchat Torah (a Jewish holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual public Torah reading cycle), she writes to Shlomit that she had forgotten it was that day. The fear of feeling like and being labeled as an “other” drives Ellie to forsake the language and culture she loves so that people will accept her. At some point, she even expresses a desire to forget Hebrew entirely. As I watch this process unfold, I remember how, as a child, I tried to distance myself from my heritage to feel more American.

Compelled by her own childhood experiences as an immigrant, Ela Thier delivers a film steeped in potential but sadly lacking in execution. A weak script paired with stale implementation from its actors makes for long, slow, and lethargic-feeling scenes that I found myself wanting to skip through. Dialogue is often repetitive and not crafted to any useful effect; It only bogs down conversation. I understand that Ellie’s English is not meant to be great, especially at the beginning of the film. However, it doesn’t excuse either her or Thuy’s almost robotic delivery of their lines. Furthermore, they have practically no on-screen chemistry. If they had not declared to each other their friendship, I would not have noticed it. From start to finish of the film, every interaction between them lacks movement; each line hangs in the air like static. At the film’s end, Thier introduces us to Thuy’s inspiration, real-life friend Van. And while the two women clearly love each other,  their film counterparts might as well be strangers. Thier’s story in itself is touching and fascinating – it’s a shame that a film with such potential for dynamism falls so short of the mark. 

© Roza M. Melkumyan (10/23/20) FF2 Media

Ellie and Thuy conduct a prank call. 

Featured Photo: Ellie and Thuy sit together on a tree trunk. 

Photo Credits: Film Movement

Q: Does Foreign Letters pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Yes.

Ellie exchanges letters about life in America with Schlomit and discusses school and friendship with Thuy.

Tags: Ela Thier, FF2 Media, Foreign Letters, Roza Melkumyan, TCM, Turner Classic Movies

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As a member of the FF2 Media team, Roza writes features and reviews and coaches other associates and interns. She joined the team as an intern herself during her third year of study at New York University. There she individualized her major and studied narrative through a cultural lens and in the mediums of literature, theatre, and film. At school, Roza studied abroad in Florence and London, worked as a Resident Assistant, and workshopped a play she wrote and co-directed. Since graduating, she spent six months in Spain teaching English and practicing her Spanish. Most recently, she spent a year in Armenia teaching university English as a Fulbright scholar. Her love of film has only grown over the years, and she is dedicated to providing the space necessary for female filmmakers to prosper.
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