(BUTWHYTHO) ‘This Place’ Asks What It Means To Belong
Our sense of peoplehood is tied to language, family, to a shared history, and often, to a physical place. As generations pass, people leave their homelands or are forced out of them, or have them conquered, and the forces of assimilation and modernity begin to detach us from our sense of peoplehood; what obligations do we owe our people, our parents, our homelands? This Place, V.T. Nayani’s directorial debut co-written by Nayani, Golshan Abdmoulaie, and Kawannáhere Devery Jacobs, begs us to ask these difficult questions through the first-time romance of Kawenniióhstha (Jacobs), whose mother is Mohawk and father she’s never met is Iranian, and Malai (Priya Guns), whose dying father and late-mother are Tamil.
Every young adult yearns for and struggles with a sense of belonging, but the marriage of this struggle through queer romance and cultural otherness allows This Place to explore the topic of belonging in a wholly unique way. But what I appreciate foremost about the movie is that it’s specifically about exploring what it means to belong and whether belonging even matters. It does not explore acceptance. Acceptance is Kawenniióhstha and Malai’s parents’ problems. Malai’s father throws away his passport out of fear. Kawenniióhstha’s mother hides her father from her because she worries blood quantum laws would keep her from being considered fully Mohawk enough to live on their reservation.
But there’s no struggle with being accepted as queer. There’s no struggle with accepting that within themselves even. Malai tells Kawenniióhstha not to call her Sri Lankan because she is Tamil, to which Kawenniióhstha agrees she doesn’t consider herself Candian, just Mohawk. They fully accept who they are and expect everyone else to do the same. But accepting who they are doesn’t mean they feel like they belong. This Place spends most of its runtime asking if these two belong in accordance with their parents’ definitions. It’s often a weak script that does little to evoke a full range of emotions from its characters. But when it places the viewer in the eyes of either Kawenniióhstha or Malai’s parents, the ways they chose to prioritize their senses of peoplehood and how they try to impose that on their kids becomes a stark contrast to the way either character evidently wants to feel like they belong.
Kawenniióhstha’s mother is obsessed with the idea that she will return home often and permanently after a few years in Toronto. Her whole sense of peoplehood is tied to their land and its sovereignty. Malai’s father similarly longs to return home. Still, he can’t because of the political situation in Sri Lanka and instead has imposed a trite sense of obligation to make his sacrifice worth it through study and success. When it’s clear neither women want to live up to their parent’s expectations, it still comes at odds with their yearning to be just as fully part of their people as their parents were. It’s these moments of recognition and struggles throughout This Place that the movie shines the hardest.
But all of this struggle is elevated enormously by the underlying romance. While Kawenniióhstha and Malai don’t spend much of the movie together, their longing for each other continuously motivates and drives their growth. It’s a romance rife with cheesy dialogue, but their mutual pining is precious in its awkwardness. And more importantly, the inherent queerness of their romance deeply entangles itself with their struggles with belonging. I don’t think that a non-queer romance would have the power to allow these two types of characters to at once shirk their parents’ expectations while doing so with the kind of love and reverence This Place does. Queerness is the dissolution of societal norms and expectations around partnership, love, and belonging, and being engulfed in queer romance is a powerful factor in both of their coming to terms with the ways they want to live in relation to the struggles, grief, and trauma of their families and peoples.
The part of the movie that delivers this message the most poignantly and emotionally would be too much of a spoiler to explain, but when a particular conversation near the movie’s end puts the ironies of Malai and Kawenniióhstha’s parents at sharp odds, it gives both of them all of the acceptance and permission they need to choose with whom and how they want to belong in the world.
This Place suffers from weak dialogue but thrives in every other way. It perfectly blends the narratives of queer romance and cultural otherness without being held back by questions around acceptance. Instead, it is able to plow forward with a story and multiple relationship dynamics that explore what it means to feel like you belong authentically and for your own sake, not the sake of your parents and ancestors.