If you agree that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then Irish-Canadian co-production Sweetness in the Belly got a hefty huff of the stuff before its world premiere at TIFF. It was all thanks to accusations of “whitewashing” triggered by the fact that Dakota Fanning plays a Muslim refugee from Ethiopia.
The whole kerfuffle unfolded according to the usual pattern of social media-generated identity-politics panic. After the initial bit of exposure showing Fanning in a blue hijab prompted outrage, it turned out that the original knee-jerk denunciations were based on misguided assumptions: Technically, this wasn’t a case of “whitewashing,” as the character Fanning plays here was already white in the source material, a novel of the same name by Camilla Gibb.
Then the opprobrium shifted to the sounder arena of denouncing that a story grounded in recent history about people of color, especially Africans, is seemingly assumed to only be palatable to mainstream audiences if it’s told through the eyes of a white person. Which, of course, prompts pragmatists to cite how poorly many recent films, even critically acclaimed ones, anchored by black protagonists did in commercial terms unless the lead actor was already a huge star or it was a Marvel movie — and wouldn’t it be better to use any means necessary to get the message across?
That line of thinking, in turn, leads to withering retorts about defeatism, cynicism and the need to educate audiences, and so on and so on, rinse, repeat, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, etc.
Sweetness in the Belly plays like a film made by good, well-intentioned people who have already thought all of the above arguments through and still feel no closer to knowing how to balance commercial appeal, quality control and political correctness any better than the rest of us. So they just went ahead and made a movie that’s laudably empathic, illuminating about a conflict barely discussed in the Western media, and which features some strong performances.
Sadly, it doesn’t entirely connect emotionally for much more quotidian reasons. For starters, the storytelling is often clumsy, the characterizations thin and other contributions trite (see, for example, the numbingly sappy musical score punching every emotional cue to pulp). It ticks nearly every box in the checklist of films you wish you could like more than you actually do.
Cast, reportedly, after Saoirse Ronan bailed on the project, Fanning stars as Lilly Mitchell. Back in the 1960s, little Lilly (played by Molly McCann in flashbacks) was abandoned by her skeevy Anglo-Irish hippie parents (Gavin Drea and Sophie Kennedy Clark) at a Sufi seminary in Morocco so they could go off and take more drugs unencumbered by childcare issues, and then be killed in a car accident for the sake of the plot.
Adopted and raised by a holy man, the Great Abdal (Estad Tewfik Yusuf Mohamed), Lilly adapts entirely to her environment, and once she becomes an adult wears modest dress according to local custom. She also fluently speaks Arabic and several North African languages. Devout and obedient, she learns the Koran with such proficiency that she aims to become a religious teacher.
But for reasons that are never entirely clear, she’s sent to live with the family of a sheikh in Ethiopia just as the country is teetering, now that it’s the 1970s, on the brink of a civil war as the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie comes to an end and a Communist military junta, the Derg, ascends to power. Deposited by one of the sheikh’s jealous wives, Gishta (the mesmeric Edelework Tassew), with her relative Nouria (Zeritu Kebede), in order to keep the exotic white girl out of the sheikh’s line of vision, meek and mild Lilly gets with the program and does what she’s told.
There’s no furious denunciation of her host when the woman’s own daughter starts bleeding profusely following a female circumcision. Instead, Lilly simply ensures the girl is taken to the local hospital for treatment. That’s where she meets handsome doctor Aziz Abdul Nasser (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, from Us and Aquaman), who, like Lilly, is not from Ethiopia originally and so struggles to be accepted by the locals.
This meet-cute over the unconscious body of a victim of FGM is but the first tricky chord in the film’s complex thematic tune, one that struggles to span the dynamics between different cultures within the story itself and those who might be watching the film from the outside. Western viewers are likely to be horrified that not only does this girl, who serves almost no other narrative function in the story, suffer such a terrible affliction, but also neither Lilly nor Aziz is particularly concerned about anything except the blood loss. Instead, they accept — as quite likely would have been the case in real life at that time and in that place — that this a normal part of the local culture, one that the film’s director, Ethiopian Zeresenay Berhane Mehari (Difret), knows himself from the inside.
That local knowledge is one of the film’s strengths, even if it ultimately may dilute the project’s commercial potential. For instance, quite a lot of time is spent learning about the anti-Derg resistance movement, which like all oppositional bodies has its own problems with infighting and debates over violent or nonviolent resistance. But just when it feels like the film is poised to start staging long argument scenes about collectivization in the manner of Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, it seems to remember that it’s meant to be a story about a white foreign girl in love.
That’s really a pity because Fanning’s Lilly is quite a snooze, a blond blank slate who seems to lack much interiority or even scars from the trauma she’s suffered from being abandoned by her parents. She’s really little more than a vehicle that carries the plot forward from Ethiopia to London in the early 1980s — a land that interior decoration had clearly forsaken judging by the baby-poo colored walls and clashing patterns everywhere — a nation that takes Lilly in as a refugee once she gets separated from Aziz, who goes mysteriously missing.
Given apparently preferential treatment because of the color of her skin, Lilly gets set up in an apartment on a public housing estate and soon makes herself useful. Not only does she start working as an auxiliary (untrained) nurse in a local hospital where she catches the amorous eye of South Asian doctor Robin Sathi (Kunal Nayyar) — she also takes in another Ethiopian woman, Amina (luminous Wunmi Mosaku), and her young son, Ahmed (Rafael Goncalves), after Amina gives birth on the building’s stairwell outside Lilly’s door. Before long, the two women start a voluntary support group for other refugees, offering to help them trace missing relatives back in Africa.
Quick-witted, bossy Amina soon proves to be a much more interesting and complex character than Lilly, partly because Mosaku’s charisma seems supercharged compared with Fanning’s wan, supposedly saintly moping. She even has a more interesting backstory, which develops into a subplot that finally adds some needed drama just when the screenplay by Laura Phillips feels like it’s gotten stalled in second gear. One is almost tempted to say that it’s a shame the film isn’t just about her instead, although surely that was probably an argument that was had and wearily resolved back in preproduction.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)
Production: A Hanway Films, Entertainment One presentation of a Sienna Films, Parallel Films production produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Eurimages, Ontario Creates, Fis Eireann/Screen Ireland
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Wunmi Mosaku, Kunal Nayyar, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Rafael Goncalves, Molly McCann, Gavin Drea, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Edelework Tassew, Zeritu Kebede, Moges Woldeyohannes, Peter Bankole
Director: Zeresenay Berhane Mehari
Screenwriters: Laura Phillips, based on a novel by Camilla Gibb
Producers: Jennifer Kawaja, Julia Sereny, Alan Moloney, Susan Mullen
Executive producers: Mehret Mandefro, Adrian Sturges, Laura Bickford, Fiona Druckenmiller, Patrick Roy, Christina Kubacki
Director of photography: Tim Fleming
Production designer: Paki Smith
Costume designer: Lorna Marie Mugan
Editor: Susan Maggi
Music: Todor Kobakov
Music supervisor: Jody Colero
Casting: Amy Hubbard, Daniel Hubbard, Amy Rowan
Rating PG; 110 minutes