For Smith Bhatnagar, the precocious 10-year old youth from India now living in middle America circa 1979, the entire cosmos, you see, can neatly be broken down into two galactic neighborhoods. Galaxy A: His parents’ trim-bordered ranch-style home on a leafy suburban street where stern old country discipline has transformed the household into a virtual replica of Smith’s father’s India boyhood homestead. Galaxy B: Outside the front door, the rest of the world, of all things American. Baseball, hot dogs and polyester. Temptation with a small t. The inevitable collision between these two seemingly immovable forces is only the beginning of a heart-warming coming-of-age comic drama that echoes far beyond its Indian-American roots.
That the Bhatnagar brood—dad Bhaaskar (Nigam), mom Nalini (Jagannathan), sister Asha (Narayan) and the mini-protagonist Smith (Akurati) want to take in the American dream is no secret. The fact that assimilation must be orchestrated with dad Bhaaskar calling the shots, however, could create anachronistic tripwires. Bhaaskar named his son Smith after a common American name, overlooking that it is a common American last name, not a first name. Smith must wear a bicycle helmet—never mind that it is actually a motor cycle helmet. The mom, still clad in her sari, rides the same bicycle—sans helmet, mind you— to fetch some needle and thread, literally, from the corner store.
Smith’s family has no money problems—dad Bhaaskar is a CPA. Smith does, however, have a honey problem. Their next-door neighbors are the Brunners, dad Butch (Lee), mom Nancy (Burton) and daughter Amy (Sharbino), who Smith has a major crush on. In Butch’s working-class, carefree denim-and-cowboy boots swagger, Smith sees a fatherhood that is the opposite of his own father Bhaaskar. As Smith bonds with Butch, the life lessons come in small, affirming doses. An ill-fated Halloween trick-or-treat outing, a hunting trip with unintended consequences, learning to stand up to schoolyard bullies and the toll to be paid for telling small truths to avoid a larger lie.
Lee’s Butch is effective as Smith’s cowboy-hero ever in danger of accidentally stepping on that pothole that may dent his halo. Nigam’s well-delivered Bhaaskar is a heavily-accented, no nonsense captain of his S.S Domestic where “punishment” can, and often does, outweigh the “crime.” While the mom role gets short-circuited though it is not altogether invisible, the offspring experiences become the driving engine. It is Akurati’s vivacious, meandering and mindful Smith that really succeeds in pulling together the several overlapping live wires. In a nation where practically everyone is from somewhere else, Smith’s awkwardly-patched, rag tag pre-teen emerges as quintessentially American.
To ponder, a father constantly berating his offspring with threats of shipping them “back to India” so they can learn “discipline and respect,” even if brushed off with new-arrival posturing, carries an element of cruelty that flies against the larger American narrative. The daughter caught kissing her white boyfriend is said to have “enjoyed” herself in, presumably, all the wrong ways. Loose translation: While America appears inviting, “evil manners” lurk behind every suburban tree and therefore no good can come from either dating or wearing anything other than the mom-designed unintentionally-ghastly Ganesha costume at Halloween. Caught in this parental barbwire, a boy’s sadness can be just as profound and the pain just as real.
An amusing period piece immigrant experience neatly tucked inside a sometimes-bittersweet slice of Americana sprinkled with Indian spices, Growing Up Smith is also essentially a story of boyhood seen through two different takes on fatherhood. The generational divide Growing Up Smith straddles—that for new arrivals the kids often assimilate faster than the parents—attests to the invisible burdens that children sometimes lift and may not be limited to any one group of new arrivals. How both the parents and the offspring cope is a story that director Lotito and company present appreciably.