Growing Up Smith” is a tender, funny coming-of-age story about a family of Indian American immigrants in the 1970s. Eager for their son to fit in, his parents gave “Smith” the extremely common American last name as his first name.
Smith is a sensitive 10-year-old boy trying to fit in while placating his parents. Their demands are a complex, contradictory mix of American and traditional Indian values. While most of the film is a genial story about culture clashes and charming malapropisms, the threat of sending their kids back to India to be raised hangs over both Smith and his older sister.
Smith rides around his Midwestern town on a girl’s bike, wearing a football helmet as a bike helmet and, in an act of rebellion, grabs a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, his dream of an American snack. He immediately spits it out, repulsed; he is a vegetarian. This is one of those moments where we witness who he truly is and, even when not being observed by his parents, he defines it for himself.
Smith’s greatest love is not for fried chicken, but for the girl next door. Rather than being an unattainable dream, she is a reliable best friend, an especially perceptive and sweet young lady who regularly impresses Smith’s parents with her knowledge of Indian and Hindu customs. One reason Smith adores her is her feckless but decent father, Butch (Jason Lee), who mispronounces every Indian name he encounters while remaining extremely lovable. He is the cowboy father figure Smith longs for.
Everyone in the film means well; if anything, the story suffers from an overabundance of goodwill. Crowds will indeed be pleased by every character: Smith is adorable, Jason Lee is as warm as possible, the parents are not even effectively overbearing. Then, when the final act takes a serious turn and the parents make good on their threats, it is heartbreaking but also so jarring that it almost loses its effect. We get lulled into a false sense of security because the film seems so harmlessly pleasant, then we find ourselves in what might be a different film for the final 20 minutes.
Some of the plot elements strain belief, even if the characters win you over. With its adult voiceover describing in hindsight the precocious foibles of a bygone era, “Growing Up Smith” is derivative, but most people love all of the things that it’s derivative of, including “A Christmas Story,” “The Wonder Years” or even “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and its tale of an unprepared boy trying to survive in the woods.
Sometimes you just want a solid PG movie you can watch with your kids, or your parents, or both, and this, similar to a very popular movie I recommended a while ago, “The Way, Way Back,” fits the bill. American families have enough to argue about right now without accidentally watching a scene of full-frontal nudity together. Smith is a genuinely memorable little fellow, and his life takes a surprisingly serious turn when his parents determine their children are becoming too American.
Theirs is an unwinnable paradox: They wanted to move to the U.S. for a better life for their children, but they have an exacting idea of how it must be lived — and, above all, they want to preserve the very lifestyle they have left behind. In the film’s final scenes, an adult Smith witnesses with disbelief how Americanized his parents have ultimately become, enjoying activities they would have surely forbidden him. It is a bitter realization for the son who gave up everything he wanted so he could become everything they wanted.
“Growing Up Smith” is flawed but not without its merits, including heart, humor and a look at the complex immigrant experience that hides a painful depth beneath its amusing surface. The film sneaks up on you with a family drama that is surprisingly unsparing.
“Growing Up Smith” is currently available to rent and to stream on Hoopla, available for free from the Mobile Public Library.