Netflixable? A Zimbabwean Single Mom struggles to win the great TV “Cook Off”

Here’s an Around the World with Netflix first, a rom-com about a cooking show contestant who wants to better her life by winning a TV “Cook Off.”

It’s the first feature film from Zimbabwe purchased and distributed by Netflix, and thus the rarest of peeks into life in the little-filmed country southern African country.. And if it meanders through a formula that’s seriously played-out in the West, at least it serves up from faces, fresh places and fresh foods as it does.

Tendaiishe Chitima plays Anesa, a single-mom and short-order cook. By day, she makes the best sadza in Budiroro, running a dollar stall diner for the demanding Mai Shupi. But as home, her tweenage son Tapiwa (Eugene Zimbudzi) both critiques her food, and times her cooking.

He’s putting her through her paces in daily imaginary run-throughs of her favorite TV show, “Battle of the Chefs.” If you’ve ever seen anything competitive involving Gordon Ramsay, or turned on The Food Network, you’ll recognize the format — lots of frazzled cooks, snooty judges, occasional tears.

They’re holding auditions for the next run of the series in Harare, but Anesu’s always-negative church-goer mom figures her daughter isn’t good for anything and Anesu herself wonders if her cooking isn’t anything special.

But her sassy BFF Charmaine (Charmaine Mujeri) gives her pep talks, and son Tapiwa and her supportive grandma secretly enter her in the auditions, which are for a contest with a $10,000 prize.

That good ol’Yankee greenback, good anywhere.

Anesu finds herself scrambling to whip up fancy, improvised dishes with salmon, eggs and local ingredients and hears herself called “amateurish” for the first time.

But no matter. She’s young and pretty and good enough and her “story” will make a compelling plotline. She wants to “show what single mothers are capable of,” open her own dollar sadza stall and maybe take her boy to see glorious Victoria Falls.

She’s made the cut. A fellow chef, the handsome “Prince” (groan) played by Tehn Diamond takes an interest in her. But what food show or movie rom-com would be complete without a Mean Girl villain? That would be snippy, sneering Milly Ann (Fungai Majaya).

As the story simmers through the usual contest rounds, we learn the connection between Milly Ann and Anesu’s family strife. The Mean Girl married Anesu’s baby daddy. As he’s the preacher’s son, it’s no wonder she never told her Bible-thumper Mama that.

The judges and fellow-competitors on the show are thinly sketched-in, although it’s worth noting that the white Zimbabwean JJ is played by the film’s writer-director, Tomas Brickhill.

The finished film is neither amateurish nor unpolished. The acting is tentative, but convincing enough. What gives it a New-to-Cinema veneer is the thin, obvious plot, bland lighting and tentative editing, which fails to give it much pace and exposes less-experienced actors to dead-spots at the beginning and end of takes. It’s on the level of an attempted Hallmark TV movie that didn’t quite make the cut.

The food is almost as generic and elementary as the production. Hollandaise sauce? The ingredients offered here would make your average foodie grouse. Lots of prepackaged imported supermarket salmon and the like. A bit more cooking of local dishes was called for, and even if one doesn’t have the resources of The Food Network, you’ve got to sex up and jazz up the production of the show within the movie, especially if your film seems designed to travel.

The entire affair plays like an attempt to pander to the North American market. But if we wanted to see a slick wish-fulfillment rom-com about a single mom finding success and love on a cooking show, we’d watch The Hallmark Channel and not bother traveling Around the World with Netflix.

Rating: TV-PG

Cast: Tendaiishe Chitima, Tehn Diamond, Tomas Brickhill, Fungai Majaya, Charmaine Mujeri and Eugene Zimbudzi

Credits: Scripted and directed by Tomas Brickhill. A Netflix release.

Running time:

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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