'Signature Move': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Christopher Rejano
A lightweight but likeable cross-cultural lesbian romance.

Actor Michael Shannon serves as one of the executive producers of this timely drama centering on the romance between a Pakistani and a Mexican-American woman.

Two women meet and fall in love, despite parental disapproval and their own personal roadblocks. Needless to say, the story of Signature Move, a SXSW world premiere, is far from novel. But vivid details can animate almost any old chestnut, and many of the variations on this timeworn tale help to give the film its appeal. It seems certain to reappear at gay and lesbian film festivals and might turn out to be a modest niche item in a few theaters as well.

The story takes place in Chicago, which contains a more multi-faceted ethnic community than some may realize. Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) is a lawyer who comes from a Pakistani family and lives with her mother (played by veteran Indian actress Shabana Azmi). Alma (Sari Sanchez) is Mexican-American and more of a free spirit than the somewhat sheltered Zaynab. Nevertheless, the two women fall into bed quickly after a meeting in a bar.

Then the problems arise. Zaynab’s mother still expects her daughter to marry a man, and Alma is reluctant to get involved with a closeted woman, so the two women are at odds despite the strong physical attraction. “I don’t go backwards for anyone,” Alma declares.The most affecting part of director Jennifer Reeder’s feature deals with Zaynab’s contentious relationship with her mother. Both Mirza and Azmi give excellent performances. Azmi in particular keeps the provincial mother from falling into caricature. Whether she is spying with binoculars for potential male suitors for Zaynab or tentatively trying on some American makeup, Azmi finds unexpected humor in her portrayal and always convinces us of her love for her daughter.

Sanchez makes an engaging foil, though her relationship with her family is not quite as sharply drawn as the story of Zaynab and her mother. There are other disappointments in the script, which was written by Mirza and Lisa Donato. Zaynab’s legal practice seems to focus on immigration issues, definitely a timely theme, but it would have been fascinating to get a few more details on the problems facing some of her clients. Another subplot, about Zaynab training for a wrestling tournament, also seems carelessly thrown into the mix.

Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon is one of the executive producers of the film, and the Chicago settings are well caught. On the other hand, there isn’t much visual originality in the romantic montage sequences. Nevertheless, the characters are distinctive and likable enough to keep us engaged. Although the romance concludes on a hopeful note, the final images focus on a reconciliation of Zaynab and her mother, and that is as it should be.

Production companies: Chicago Film Project, Full Spectrum Features in association with Black Apple Media
: Fawzia Mirza, Shabana Azmi, Sari Sanchez, Audrey Francis, Charin Alvarez, Mark Hood
: Jennifer Reeder
Screenwriters: Fawzia Mirza, Lisa Donato
Producers: Brian Hieggelke, Fawzia Mirza, Eugene Sun Park
Executive producers: Jan Hieggelke, Nabeela Rasheed, Hugh Schulze, Michael Shannon
Director of photography: Christopher Rejano
Production designer: Amanda Brinton
Costume designer: Kate Grube
Editor: Felix Pineiro
Music: Carlos Villalobos, Jr.
Venue: South by Southwest (Narrative Feature)

80 minutes