As authentic and human as it is funny, The Big Sick makes a strong case for one of the best films of the year.
The indie hit, produced by Amazon Studios, features a struggling stand-up comedian from a rather unsupportive family who manages to commit the ultimate sin in his family: he falls in love with a white girl. His Pakistani family, both delightful and frustrating, want Kumail to marry a girl who is both Pakistani and Muslim. Kumail, however, unbeknownst to his family, has lost his faith and doesn’t care about the race of any girl he might find.
That last sentence, while not untrue, paints Kumail’s family with too coarse a brush. His brother is very supportive of him, and his parents, while clearly having some significant differences from Kumail, do genuinely want what’s best for him. Kumail is not in the midst of an unloving family, even if their approach to him is highly questionable.
This is what makes the cultural clash at the center of the film effective. The film cannot be accurately described as leaning on an antagonist/protagonist dichotomy. Kumail’s family might be the “antagonist” in purely terms of the goals of his romance with Emily, but they are not antagonists in the sense that Kumail views them as an obstacle he has to overcome. “I can’t lose my family,” he says in one particularly tense moment. And so he is left in an awkward position, trying to find a way to balance love for his family and respect for their culture with a desire to live out his own convictions, or lack thereof, with authenticity.
Most of us will not be in the particular position that Kumail finds himself in, but the challenge to balance respect for our parents where we disagree, sometimes in significant matters such as faith and relationships, is hardly a rare predicament. Neither are the numerous blunders that Kumail makes along the way, hiding his differences from his family, dodging conversations about family with Emily, and ultimately living a double life. When Kumail’s actions ultimately lead to losing his way, the film’s honesty and authenticity shines through: these are mistakes many of us have made, and the unworkability of it, and the brokenness of it, shines through.
In contrast to Kumail’s dishonesty and fractured life ethos, we are eventually introduced to Emily’s parents, a man and a woman that exude authenticity. Emily’s mother, a tenacious Holly Hunter, is direct, forceful, and never leaves others in the doubt as to her emotion and conviction. Emily’s father, an understated Ray Romano, is more gentle and humble, and surprisingly becomes one of the film’s most compelling characters. The most important thing about these two characters, and their interactions with Kumail, is that they are so undeniably real. Authenticity is a key theme in this film, and they contrast with Kumail’s failed attempts at bringing his two worlds together rather nicely.
The Big Sick is, if nothing else, human. As such, we get the brokenness of human relationships as well as the redemptive moments. Kumail’s and Emily’s relationship immediately jumps to sexual activity (though this is only referenced and not shown; kissing is the only activity we see onscreen). In the beginning, it appears quite obviously to be a casual fling, and Emily is determined to treat it as such. While this ultimately grows to something deeper – and it’s noteworthy that this being a semiautobiographical film indicates this is what actually happened – the genesis of their relationship is indicative of a troubling approach to human relationships and human sexuality.
The question that naturally follows is how central this fact is to the story. It really isn’t, which in a way makes this particular facet of the film worse. The increasing disassociation between sex and love is exacerbated when sexual encounters are immediately followed by the involved parties proclaiming they aren’t interested in seeing anyone at the moment. As honest as this story is, the romanticizing of non-commital sexual encounters – and particularly those coming before even so much of a commitment as “let’s go out” is an aspect of the story that should not be taken lightly.
But we must consider the good as well as the bad. For both better and worse, The Big Sick is one of the most honest approaches to human relationships I’ve seen released in the past few years. That’s good – it highlights worthwhile truths about the importance of honesty and sincerity, traits central to the Christian worldview. It also means there’s no shying away from adult content when the creators deem it part of the story. Coarse language is used throughout the film, as well as occasional sexual references.
But while there are elements of the film to be cautious of, The Big Sick also emerges as a complex and thematically rich view of relationships in light of the human experience. It contains elements of the consequences of sin (particularly dishonesty) as well as forgiveness, redemption, commitment, and trying to maintain relationships with family. In short, despite its issues, The Big Sick is a great love story, and a great film, and one with ideas worth engaging.