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Coming-of-age film celebrates female friendship
“Foreign Letters” will be shown Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Historic Yuma Theatre, 254 S. Main St. The screening, part of the Arizona Western College Foundation's Thursdays at the Theatre, includes an independent short film and a hosted discussion. Languages are English, Hebrew and Vietnamese, with English subtitles. Run time of the feature is 100 minutes; admission is $5.
“Foreign Letters,” this month's offering by AWC's foreign and independent film series, is a meditation on the experience of being plunked down in the middle of unfamiliar surroundings without even speaking the language, and on the special place of close friendship in those circumstances.
Actually, the 12-year-old girl at the center of the film is the beneficiary of two close friendships, one in her past and one in her future.
Ellie's voice-over narration throughout the film is the content of her letters to “my best friend in the entire universe times infinity,” a school friend back in her native Israel, which her family has had to leave for some not-quite-clear reason. But occasional mail from far away isn't enough to satisfy the need for human contact, and Ellie can't live in that void for long.
Birds of a feather
The logical object of Ellie's interest is Thuy, a Vietnamese girl her age who also sits alone in the lunch room. Thuy has been raised in the U.S., so she's a native English speaker. But she's even more of an outsider than Ellie because of her race and her poverty.
Ellie has a hard job ahead of her in breaking through Thuy's defenses. Thuy can't hang out, she says, because she has to watch her siblings. She also has to study for the PSAT (starting in the sixth grade). But it isn't long before the two girls are solemnly pledging to be “best friends forever.”
Life never goes that smoothly, though, and the pressure of being outcasts is likely to get to one of the girls eventually. Sometimes children show their love by lashing out, and sometimes the only way to make amends is to part with a prized possession …
As the promotional materials say, “‘Foreign Letters' is a story about prejudice, poverty, shame and the power of friendship to heal us.”
In the words of the director (who also plays the Ellie's immigrant mother), the film “highlights a connection between two tween-aged girls, a demographic that is largely invisible in our culture's stories.” But the movie is about many other things, too.
It's a celebration of diversity, set in a time (early 1980s) before that notion was as mainstream as it is now, and in a place without much history of cultural variation.
The film also offers the always-valuable opportunity for us to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and it does so in a gentle and humorous way. For example, Ellie tells her pen pal that once a year Americans bring a tree inside the house. “I'm not making this up!”
Also, Americans go walking around in stores, even when they don't need anything. They call it “shopping.”
Art in layers
Many an independent film is closely autobiographical, and many a feature film has arisen from a shorter project that begged for more development. The audience at this Thursday's screening actually will be treated to an intriguing example of both phenomena.
In our local cinema series, usually the short film and the feature film are related only loosely, perhaps connected by a similar theme. In this case, however, the short film, “A Summer Rain,” is the direct precursor of the feature, created by the same writer-director and starring the same pair of young actors.
Most interestingly, the feature doesn't simply repeat the plot of the short. Instead, the two films are true companion pieces in that one could almost be considered the sequel of the other, with the two girls a year or two older.
It's as if we're watching the evolution of a creative idea.