“Donkeyhead” might be the best indie dramedy on Netflix right now.
Intimate and funny, touching and set in a place and a subculture mainstream cinema never ventures — the Sikh community of Regina, Saskatchewan — it’s great example of “write what you know” and “don’t overreach.”
Writer/director Agam Darshi created a star vehicle for herself, and gives plenty of scripted room for her co-stars to shine in this story of a scattered family facing their patriarch’s impending death in the snow-covered house they all grew up in.
Mona (Darshi) lives with and cares for her grumpy, cancer-stricken dad, rides her bike in the snow, drinks a bit and inhales a bit and carries off a weekly assignation with a married man (Kim Coates).
And if she’s feeling particularly worthless, she’ll look over the letter that arrived with the advance for a book she never finished, an advance paid out a dozen years ago.
After Dad (Marvin Ishmael) delivers his latest “You should get married, become someone else’s problem” to his 30something “writer who doesn’t write,” he has a stroke. It’s time to “call your family,” his doctor declares, gently at first, and then more firmly a second time.
Mona the “failure” has to summon her married real estate entrepreneur brother Rup (Huse Madhavji), married-doctor/sister Sandy (Sandy Sindhu) and “golden boy” London doctor Parminder (Stephen Lobo) for a bedside death watch.
She has to fend off or surrender to the pushy Sikh aunt (Balinder Johal) who wants to bring the gigantic book of scriptures and much of her congregation into the house for Paath, praying over the sick man.
Words will be exchanged, old wounds redressed and new ones opened as Mona, or “Manjit,” wrestles with what became of her life in the face of all the “success” of her siblings. Everybody needs to “let go,” some more than others. You can guess who’s deepest in denial.
“Why don’t we see how he does before planning a funeral?”
Not every scene sings, but Darshi gets laughs out of a taxi ride with a fellow distracted, music-video-watching Desi who sees cash for his catering business in the return of the prodigals, and pathos out of every intervention and sad moment of grappling with their father’s fate.
Lobo, playing “Dad’s favorite,” stands out among the supporting players, giving us a convincing take on “the empathetic one” among the siblings, reminding us that even the empathetic have their limits. And veteran character actor Coates, just seen in “See for Me” and TV’s “Van Helsing,” is nicely cast against type as a professional man, and a cheating husband.
“Donkeyhead” has heart and humor in nicely matched doses, and is good enough that you hope Darshi has another movie in mind as a follow-up, and that Netflix has the sense and Canadian dollars to let her make it.
Rating: TV-MA, sex, profanity, smoking and drinking
Cast: Agam Darshi, Stephen Lobo, Sandy Sindhu, Huse Madhavji, Marvin Ishmael, Balinder Johal and Kim Coates
Credits: Scripted and directed by Agam Darshi. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:45