'I'll Meet You There': Film Review | SXSW 2020

Courtesy of SXSW
Raincheck.

Faran Tahir stars as a Chicago policeman whose undercover assignment sparks rueful personal conflicts in Iram Parveen Bilal's three-generation family drama.

[Note: In the wake of the fest's cancellation this year, THR is reviewing select South by Southwest entries that elected to premiere digitally.]

The famous quote from 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi about the place beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing provides the title of I'll Meet You There, writer-director Iram Parveen Bilal's domestic drama set in a Pakistani immigrant community in Chicago. But that philosophical foundation can't disguise the soapy plotting or uneven acting in this earnest melodrama about an aspiring ballerina, her widowed cop father and her grandfather, who arrives unannounced from Karachi after a 12-year estrangement, sparking collisions of past and present, faith and freedom.

Premiering in the narrative competition of the digitally downsized SXSW Festival, the movie's chief asset is a grounded, sympathetic performance by Faran Tahir as Chicago police officer Majeed, whose ties to his cultural and spiritual roots have become untethered in the sorrowful years since his wife's death. Their daughter, Dua (Nikita Tewani), is following in her late mother's footsteps as a dancer, aiming to further her studies at Juilliard and being coached for her audition by family friend Shonali (Sheetal Sheth), whose tentative romance with Majeed remains on hold due to his unresolved issues.

Around the same time his father, Baba (Muhammad Qavi Khan), turns up unexpectedly, Majeed is enlisted to collaborate with the FBI in an investigation related to recent bombings. He's required to gather information about the local mosque, which is suspected of money-laundering to fund terrorist activities. Majeed's misgivings about being asked to spy on his own community are heightened when his devout father begins frequenting the mosque, bringing both his son and granddaughter back into the fold after years of relatively secular detachment.

Majeed starts digging into the charity activities of the muezzin, Jaffar (Nitin Madan), as well as those of Dr.  Khan (Samrat Chakrabarti), a cardiologist who offers to perform an angioplasty on Baba when the old man's heart condition worsens. At the same time, Dua becomes closer to her grandfather, who starts filling in gaps in her Muslim education and causes her to question her dance vocation. She becomes aware of the stigma attached to traditional Pakistani folk dancing over the perceived use of women's bodies for the purposes of sexual enticement. That conflict is amplified by Dua's growing awareness of how the same taboo affected her mother.

There's interesting potential here for a contemplative examination of the clash between rigid tradition and modern attitudes, with a feminist angle woven around the dance elements and the marginalized female access at the mosque. But particularly coming from a woman writer-director, that element feels disappointingly under-developed; Bilal's script seldom gets beyond schematic melodrama. "We can't move forward until we face the past," Shonali tells Majeed in a line typical of the pedestrian dialogue.

The suspense element is just plain clumsy, as Majeed finds himself in an awkward position after supplying names that lead to a roundup resulting in the detainment of innocent men. There are effective moments depicting the erosion of trust between father and son, as Baba is shocked to learn of Majeed's suspicions. But the procedural mechanics are poorly executed, not to mention blighted by wooden actors playing the FBI agent and chief of police who make thoroughly unconvincing law enforcement representatives.

Treacly use of music doesn't help the film's shortage of dramatic heft, while the dance sequences, with the exception of one extended scene at the end, are too choppy and uninterestingly shot to captivate. The intercutting of ballet moves with similar positions of worshippers at prayer is moderately effective the first time, less so with each repetition. Still, for all its weaknesses, I'll Meet You There deserves credit for ambition in telling a Muslim American story that touches on complex questions of faith, immigrant identity and both personal and sociopolitical conflict.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Narrative Competition)
Production companies: Parveen Shah Productions, Sanat Initiative

Cast: Faran Tahir, Nikita Tewani, Muhammad Qavi Khan, Sheetal Sheth, Shawn Parsons, Andrea Cirie, Michael Pemberton, Nitin Madan, Samrat Chakrabarti, Rachit Trehan
Director-screenwriter: Iram Parveen Bilal
Producers: Iram Parveen Bilal, Faran Tahir
Executive producers: Heather Rae, Abid Aziz Merchant, Ghazalah Naheed Khan, Dr. Khalid Khan
Director of photography: Anthony C. Kuhnz
Production designer: Michael Fitzgerald Sutherland
Costume designer: Aminah Haddad
Music: Cion Collective, Ahsan Bari, Faisal Baig
Editors: Cari Coughlin, Spence Nicholson
Casting: Sunday Boling, Meg Morman

91 minutes