Frank Lotito’s Growing Up Smith is a comedy that could veer wrong in so many places, but maintains its tone assuredly as it explores the humor in everything from cultural divide misunderstanding to awkward adolescence drama for its young protagonist named Smith. And although it hews close to its safe, family-friendly formula, it’s hard to deny Growing Up Smith and its honest humility in telling a good story.
Told in flashback as the now grown Smith (Samrat Chakrabarti) reflects on his youth in 1979 America (and in Oklahoma of all places), of course his story begins on a first crush. 800 page novels have been written about young love and its confusing, electric consequences on the young male persona. Young Smith (Roni Akurati) is in love with next door neighbor Amy (Brighton Sharbino). She reciprocates his affection in the way she sticks up for him in school against bullies and helps educate her beer-swilling, abrasive parents (Jason Lee and Hilarie Burton) about the Hindu ways of Smith and his family.
In fact, life would be relatively okay for Smith if it weren’t for his parents (played to great effect by Anjul Nigam and Poorna Jagannathan). Not only do they routinely misunderstand American culture and sayings, but they remain rooted in their Indian beliefs of arranged marriage and social order in the house., including a strict vegetarian diet that Smith breaks to gorge himself on KFC chicken before spitting it out due to its bad taste. Therefore, Smith has been promised to a girl he’s never even met back in India, which poses a serious problem for his burgeoning relationship with Amy.
The pains of cultural obligation apply to Smith’s older sister Asha (Shoba Narayan) as well. Smarter and more acute in how she lives her new-found Americanized life, only Smith knows her secret of falling in love with an American boy. Naturally, she’s promised to someone back in India as well.
This secret and Smith’s gradual friendship (or perhaps mentorship) with the aforementioned beer swiller played by Jason Lee give provide Growing Up Smith with the basic blueprint of a gentle coming-of-age film. He takes young Smith hunting. The relationship between Smith and Amy grows in easy, heartfelt ways. There are punishments and young-kid screw-ups and teary-eyed fights between kids and parents. Yet, everything in the film plays out in an unforced manner, especially in the relationship between Smith and Amy. As Amy, young Sharbino (best recognized as the complicated young girl Lizzie in The Walking Dead) belies an intelligence and curiosity that makes it easy to see why Smith quickly falls for her. The film finds an easy rhythm in these small moments that feel a bit refreshing at times.
And, without giving too much away, the final portion of Growing Up Smith glides into bittersweet territory that may have one thinking about digging out those old school yearbooks and looking up their various flames and pondering the exciting, scary and confused feelings of what might have been.
Growing Up Smith will play at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on Wednesday, February 1 as a special screening of the DFW South Asian Film Festival and on Thursday, February 2 at the Frisco City Hall. It opens in theaters on Friday, February 3 at the AMC Stonebriar 24.