Review: ‘Grasshoppers,’ starring Saleh Bakri and Iva Gocheva

January 1, 2023

by Carla Hay

Saleh Bakri and Iva Gocheva in “Grasshoppers” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)


Directed by Brad Bischoff

Culture Representation: Taking place in Barrington, Illinois, the dramatic film “Grasshoppers” features a cast of predominantly white people (with one person of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During a 24-hour period, two immigrant spouses make drunken, uninvited visits to houses in an affluent, gated community. 

Culture Audience: “Grasshoppers” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing dramas about the dark side of pursuing the American Dream.

Saleh Bakri and Iva Gocheva in “Grasshoppers” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Grasshoppers” is a well-acted portrait of two immigrant spouses during a 24-hour period of their alcohol-drenched life journey seeking the American Dream. It’s a journey that blurs the lines between wanting dignity and experiencing desperation. “Grasshoppers” might not satisfy viewers who are looking for a wacky adventure story. However, the movie offers an intriguing and deliberately meandering experience, with insights about how being too preoccupied with other people’s material wealth can chip away at people’s self-esteem and souls.

Written and directed by Brad Bischoff, “Grasshoppers” (which takes place in Barrington, Illinois) begins by showing husband Nijm (played by Saleh Bakri) and wife Irina (played by Iva Gocheva) at the start of their day. Nijm is originally from Palestine, while Irina is from an unnamed Eastern European country. (In real life, Gocheva is from Bulgaria.) It’s a bright, sunny day, but the movie takes place in an unnamed winter month, which has resulted in recent snow on the ground.

Nijm and Irina are in a large, upscale house in a gated community. Nijm, who is in a bathrobe, saunters confidently into the bedroom with two glasses of orange juice: one for him and one for Irina, who is still in bed. Later, viewers find out that those glasses of orange juice probably had alcohol in them, because Nijm and Irina are alcoholics who are drunk for most of the time they are on screen.

Nijm and Irina cuddle in bed, as Nijm and says, “Time to go to work, but I don’t want to leave.” Irina replies, “You’re like a stranger, you know. Always gone, always working. You’re never next to me when I wake up anymore.” She suggests that he call in sick and that they go out on a date.

Irina asks Nijm if he remembers the first drinking toast that he gave to her. He remembers, and he says it out loud to prove it: “Should we forget ourselves lost at sea, may we never forget why we decided to set sail in the first place.” Irina comments sarcastically, “I don’t want to know how many other people you used that toast on.” Nijm says, “A lot of people, baby.”

Nijm and Irina passionately kiss in bed. Nijm suggests that they spend their day going to all the houses in their gated community to see which person has the best house. And then, Nijm says, they can end the day by going to the local clubhouse for some steak and champagne. Irina is up for the idea, but she’s wary about going to people’s homes when they aren’t there. Nijm says it doesn’t matter because everyone else is away for the winter holidays.

As time goes on, viewers see that Nijm is the more reckless and more rebellious of these two spouses. Irina usually goes along with what Nijm wants, but she questions or berates him if he thinks he’s doing something that’s wrong. Their relationship is passionate but volatile. One minute they could be kissing each other or having sex in a stranger’s bathroom. The next minute they could be arguing with each other and insulting each other.

At the first house that Nijm and Irina go to on their “house tour,” the door is unlocked, and no one is home. Nijm immediately goes to the house bar and helps himself to some liquor. Irina is nervous about the possibility that there could be hidden cameras in the house, but it doesn’t take long for to join Nijm for a drink at the bar. Because Nijm and Irina are alcoholics, consuming alcohol is their escape and their prison.

Before they decided to go around the neighborhood to sneak into people’s houses, Nijm called the clubhouse restaurant to make a dinner reservation for him and Irina. He proudly tells the restaurant employee over the phone that he and his wife are on their honeymoon. But wait: Didn’t Irina and Nijm talk about how he had to go to work that morning? It’s the first clue that Irnia’s and Nijm’s alcoholism is affecting their perceptions of reality.

The rest of “Grasshoppers” show this couple’s drunken conversations and antics as they haphazardly go about their day. Irina and Nijm go at an open house showing for a house that’s up for sale. A snooty realtor named Jacob (played by Kenneth Yoder) asks Nijm and Irina if they have an appointment, and Nijm says that an appointment isn’t needed for an open house. The realtor slightly warms up to them when Nijm and Irina mention that they live in the neighborhood and are just curious to look at the house.

Jacob says he is the agent who’s selling the house and gives the couple his business card. Jacob also tells Irina and Nijm that because he doesn’t want people’s shoes to bring in outside snow or mud, they’re welcome to look around, but they have to take off their shoes or wear the plastic bootie slip-on coverings that have been provided near the front door. Observant viewers will notice that all the other visitors have not made any such accommodations for their feet, which implies that they weren’t asked.

There are instances where Nijm and Irina get reactions from people which silently seem to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” Irina and Nijm dress more like they’re in a rock band than like they are the type of socialites and business people who populate this well-to-do community. It turns out that Nijm is a self-employed electrician (as shown in the trailer for “Grasshoppers”), but how financially successful is he to be staying in a house in this gated community?

Over time, viewers see that Nijm is deeply resentful and jealous of well-educated, rich people who are living the American Dream, if he thinks that they are privileged Americans who didn’t have to work as hard as immigrants to achieve that dream. Irina isn’t as judgmental, and she encourages Nijm to take better job opportunities. She also thinks getting a college degree is important to getting better job opportunities, but Nijm is resistant to getting a college degree.

The couple’s encounter with a wealthy neighbor named Clark (played by Jack C. Newell) gives further insight into Nijm’s insecurities about what it means to be “successful” on his own terms. Clark, who runs a property development company owned by his mother Donna (played by Janet Ulrich Brooks), has been persistently asking Nijm to interview for a job at the company. Out of courtesy, Nijm has agreed to the interview, which is supposed to take place in two days.

But during an invited visit to Clark’s house, with Clark’s standoffish mother also there, this is what Nijm has to say about the job’s starting salary of $150,000 a year: “I’ve had better.” Clark also blurts out that the main reason why he wants to hire Nijm is because he thinks Nijm is amusing for telling stories about being on the Gaza Strip with guys armed with AK-47s or hanging out with drug dealers in Mexico. Clark tells his visibly uncomfortable mother: “This is the guy we need on our team, this colorful guy, because the stories alone would be worth it.”

Who exactly are Nijm and Irina? What do they want out of life? More scenes reveal that information, including any plans that they have to start a family. As the day goes on, and Niijm and Irina get more intoxicated and sometimes more irritated, their story isn’t as simple as a husband and wife wanting him to take a day off from work.

“Grasshoppers” is a conversation-driven movie that doesn’t have much of a plot. However, viewers will know within 10 minutes of watching the film if it’s interesting enough to see more of what Nijm and Irina are about, what they want to do, and where they might end up at the conclusion of the movie. These two characters want a jet-set lifestyle, but their lives start to look more and more like a train wreck.

Writer/director Bischoff makes an admirable feature-film directorial debut with “Grasshoppers,” which occasionally stumbles (much like a drunken Nijm and Irina stumble) with some cliché dialogue. For example, in a scene in a movie where Nijm and Irina are at restaurant’s bar, Nijm shouts to Irina about his wanting more from the American Dream than he’s currently getting: “I want a piece of the pie! I want a seat at the table!”

However, the watchable performances by Bakri and Gocheva infuse a lot of realistic energy into the movie, with Gocheva doing a better job than Bakri of looking more natural when saying lines of dialogue. Bischoff also brings an authentic tone to the story, as things start to get more choatic as Nijm and Irina get drunker. Daphne Qin Wu’s artful cinematogaphy, as well as the musical score by Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta, serve the movie well in expressing the moods for each scene.

“Grasshoppers” doesn’t try to answer questions about how long Nijm and Irina have been together, how long they’ve been alcoholics, or even how long they have been living in the United States. It’s also more than a movie that’s about “a day in the life of drunks.” The movie presents an intriguing character study of two immigrants who share a common goal to achieve the American Dream but have let alcohol abuse make their lives become more of a nightmare.

Gravitas Ventures will release “Grasshoppers” on digital and VOD on January 3, 2023.

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