Review: ‘A Girl From Mogadishu,’ starring Aja Naomi King

July 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

“A Girl From Mogadishu” 

Directed by Mary McGuckian

English and Somalian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Somalia and Ireland, the drama “A Girl From Mogadishu” (based on a true story) has a racially diverse cast (white and black) representing Somalian natives and refugees and Irish politicians and social workers.

Culture Clash:  Ifrah Ahmed escapes war-torn Somalia for a life in Ireland, where she becomes a social activist campaigning to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Culture Audience: “A Girl From Mogadishu” will appeal primarily to people who like stories about social justice issues and immigrants who overcome difficult challenges.

Barkhad Abdi and Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

The dramatic film “A Girl From Mogadishu” (written and directed by Mary McGuckian) takes on two very difficult subjects—war-torn Somalia and the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)—and tells the story from the perspective of someone who’s experienced both in real life. The movie is a biography of Ifrah Ahmed, who fled Somalia when she was 15. She ended up in Ireland, and became a leading activist in a campaign to outlaw FGM, which has been a forced ritual (mostly inflicted on underage girls) in African cultures for centuries.

Aja Naomi King (who is American) gives a compelling performance as Ifrah, from the ages of 15 to her 20s. The entire movie has her voiceover narration, which works well in some scenes, but doesn’t work in others. The movie begins on December 28, 2006, with Ifrah running for her life on the day that’s known as the Fall of Mogadishu, when the militaries of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian troops invaded the Somali capital.

Ifrah becomes separated from her family (her grandmother, her father and her brother) after the military raided the family home. She ends up in an empty house, where three military soldiers rape her. Ifrah has an aunt who lives in Minnesota, so Ifrah thinks her best chance for a life outside of Somalia is to go to the United States to live with her aunt.

Ifrah boards a bus to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there, she plans to go to the United States. But she has a close call in Addis Ababa when she finds out that she boarded the wrong bus, which is controlled by a sex trafficker.

She runs away from the wrong bus and boards another bus, which leads her to a family with a son named Hassan (played by Barkhad Abdi), who tells Ifrah that he can take her to the United States. The movie doesn’t make it clear how Ifrah was able to pay for this service, since it’s obvious that Hassan isn’t going to all this trouble out of the goodness of his own heart. This missing detail is an example of one of the flaws in this movie’s screenplay.

Hassan provides Ifrah with a passport and specific instructions to follow him and imitate what he does when they’re at the airport. It’s the first time that Ifrah ever gets on an escalator and goes on an airplane, so she’s understandably terrified. But when Ifrah and Hassan leave Ethiopia, they don’t arrive in the United States. They arrive in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin instead.

Ifrah is angry and confused over why Hassan lied to her, but he explains that Ifrah cannot stay with her aunt in Minnesota because her aunt is not a legal immigrant in the United States. Hassan tells Ifrah that she can seek asylum in Ireland. And then he drops her off in the cold winter night at a Dublin Asylum Seekers’ Center with nothing more than a note written in English with her name and why she needs asylum.

Because she is an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum, Ifrah is put into a group home called Ashton House and is placed under the care of social workers. She experiences major culture shock, not only because she can’t speak English but also because she has difficulty adjusting to the type of food that’s eaten in Ireland. In one scene, when a male social worker laughs at how Ifrah eats a bowl of cornflakes with her bare hands, she gets irritated and throws a shoe at him.

Ifrah is reprimanded, but she is able to communicate with the social worker that what she’s really frustrated about is not being able to speak English. With the help of a Somalian translator at Ashton House, Ifrah is able to better communicate with the staff. Ifrah has also become friends with another Somalian refugee at Ashton House. Her new friend is Amala (played by Martha Canga Antonio), and they both help each other learn English.

Ifrah’s life takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when she has her first medical exam in Ireland. The doctors are shocked to find out about her FGM. At first, Ifrah mistakenly thinks that their horrified reaction is because they think she’s HIV-positive. The doctors tell her she’s not HIV-positive and that they’re upset by the mutilation of her genital area. Ifrah replies, “This is my culture.”

However, when Ifrah figures out that FGM is not normal and is a major stigma in cultures outside of Africa, she’s overwhelmed by shame and starts sobbing uncontrollably. The next thing you know, there’s a flash forward to Ifrah as an anti-FGM activist giving a speech to a group of politicians. This sudden flash-forward scene is a little jarring and an example of better editing choices that director McGuckian could have made, since the movie keeps jumping back and forth in time in a way that doesn’t always transition smoothly.

The rest of the movie shows Ifrah’s anti-FGM activism and the increased progress and media attention that she and her allies received for this issue. With the help of Ireland’s Labour Party politicians Emer Costello (played by Orla Brady) and her husband Joe Costello (played by Stanley Townsend), Ifrah was able to get FGM outlawed in Ireland. And, accompanied by a NGO (non-governmental organization) rep (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), Ifrah travels to Africa to further her cause to get FGM banned.

The movie also depicts how Ifrah eventually opened up and went public with all the harrowing details of what happened to her during her FGM torture. She was mutilated at 8 years old with several other girls, and they were tied up for 40 days with a very limited ability to urinate. One of the girls got a urinary tract infection and died.

There’s a scene where Ifrah goes back to Somalia to confront her grandmother for allowing the FGM to happen to Ifrah. Hassan pops up out of nowhere and tells Ifrah, “Good girls keep things private and don’t talk.” Ifrah replies defiantly, “I will not be silenced! Not now, not ever, not even for my family!”

“A Girl From Mogadishu” has an important story to tell, but there are some flaws in how it’s told. The dialogue and narration are often simplistic and predictable. And the movie needed better editing, so that the story didn’t seem so choppy and jumbled during the flashback and flash-forward scenes. However, the acting, especially from King in the lead role, elevates the often-trite screenplay. Her performance is worth watching, even if she has to say a lot of lines that could have been written better.

The production design (by Emma Pucci) and costume design (by Nathalie Leborgne) complement the movie very well. For example, the film does a convincing recreation of Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Ireland, with Ifrah among the thousands of people who went to see him give an outdoor speech in Dublin. Ifrah is also involved in doing fashion shows to raise money for her cause. Those fashion shows are depicted quite nicely in the film.

There are many scenes in “A Girl From Mogadishu” that look like a made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Despite its flaws, “A Girl From Mogadishu” has emotional authenticity and respect for the traumatic subject matter (the real Ifrah Ahmed was a consultant for the movie), considering that FGM is rarely acknowledged in narrative feature films. This movie will help make people more aware that trying to stop FGM is not just a “women’s issue.” It’s also about human rights.

Showtime Women premiered “A Girl From Mogadishu” on July 15, 2020, and the movie is available on Showtime’s on-demand platforms. Pembridge Pictures will release the film internationally from November 25, 2020 to December 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Browse,’ starring Lukas Haas

July 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lukas Haas in “Browse” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

“Browse” 

Directed by Mike Testin

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the drama “Browse” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians and black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Bad things start happening to a lonely unmarried man, and it might or might not be connected to his recent online dating activities.

Culture Audience: “Browse” will mostly appeal to people who like mystery dramas set in seedy atmospheres, but the only people who will like this movie are those who don’t mind badly written scenes that ultimately serve no purpose in the film.

Lukas Haas in “Browse” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

The incoherent drama “Browse” tries to look like a suspenseful horror movie, but there’s nothing scary or thrilling about this rambling dud of a film. If you expect movies about a mystery to have the mystery solved by the end of the film, then don’t waste your time watching “Browse,” which has a conclusion that is as unsatisfying as it is pointless. “Browse” director Mike Testin tries to infuse some artsy elements into the movie, but the “Browse” screenplay by Mario Carvalhal is really a substandard unfinished draft instead of a cohesive, complete story.

In “Browse,” which takes place in Los Angeles, Richard Coleman (played by Lukas Haas) is a lonely divorced man who lives by himself in the type of shabby high-rise apartment building that used to be a hotel in its glory days. Richard is an office manager at a start-up company (the type of business is not mentioned in the movie), where his abrasive and cocky boss Daniel (played by Ken Kirby) is about 15 years younger than Richard.

Richard’s rented apartment is as dull, dreary and nearly empty as his life. He can’t even commit to buying furniture, since all of the furniture in the apartment is rented, and he’s kept the plastic coverings on the furniture. The only “companions” that Richard has at home are an Alexa-type of device named Roxy and any of the random women he might chat with online when he goes on dating sites or webcam model sites. Richard also spends a lot of time in virtual-reality worlds.

Richard is sometimes visited by an apartment front-desk employee named Kyle (played by Bodhi Elfman), a nosy motormouth who teases Richard about Richard’s attempts to find love online. One evening, while Kyle is visiting Richard, he tells Richard that the apartment managers have bought up other apartments on the street and want to kick out longtime residents, in order to rent to the wealthy people who are willing to pay higher prices. Kyle also reminds Richard that his rent is due, but Richard says that he’s on an automatic payment plan and the rent isn’t due until the next day.

Kyle also has a morbid fascination with talking about how people died in the building. He tells Richard about a longtime building resident who killed himself by putting a plastic bag over his head. The man’s decomposed body was found several days later, and it made the local news.

And later in the story, Kyle also wants to show Richard surveillance video of an apartment resident who committed suicide on the surveillance video by shooting himself of the roof of the building. However, Richard refuses to watch the video because he thinks it’s too creepy.

Even if “Browse” didn’t have a scene of Kyle pressuring Richard to watch a disturbing suicide video, the movie telegraphs too much that Kylie is a shady person who can’t be trusted. In one scene, Kyle tells Richard that an unidentified man stopped by the apartment building asking if Richard lived there, but Kyle can’t describe the man and where he went.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Richard is the victim of identity theft, and whoever stole his identity has access to his bank accounts and credit cards. In another scene, Kyle tells Richard that his rent is one month overdue. Kyle later says he was mistaken and that Richard’s rent is actually three months overdue and the landlord wants to evict Richard. However, Richard objects to this claim, because he says he knows the rent was paid, and if it hadn’t been paid, the landlord would have notified him.

The furniture company where Richard got his furniture calls Richard to tell him that they’re repossessing the furniture because he stopped paying. An angry Richard tells them that he hasn’t missed any payments and that he should probably own the furniture by now. Nevertheless, the furniture gets repossessed. And then, Richard finds out that his bank accounts are overdrawn by thousands of dollars, and his bank card has been declared a “fraud” by the bank.

In the middle of all this financial drama, Richard has become enamored with a woman named Veronica (played by Chloe Bridges), who looks like a model and who is an aspiring singer who goes by the stage name Veronique. Richard first “met” Veronica online through a dating site, and they began texting and talking with each other. Richard is thrilled to find out that Veronica lives in the building across from his, and he can see right into her apartment.

But when Veronica suggests they meet up late one night at his apartment building’s swimming pool so they can smoke cigarettes together, she ends up being a no-show. The only person smoking a cigarette near the pool is an unnamed young man, played by Luke Spencer Roberts.

When Richard asks the young man who he is, the young man cryptically replies with famous words uttered by Jim Morrison of The Doors: “I’m the lizard king. I can do anything.” This “lizard king” reference has no bearing on this movie’s story, but it’s an example of the randomly derivative things in “Browse” that seems like it’s a possible clue to what’s going on, but it actually leads nowhere.

Even though Veronica stood up Richard for their “date” at the swimming pool, he becomes obsessed with her. Richard becomes a Peeping Tom and even takes voyeuristic photos of Veronica when she’s in her apartment with the windows exposed. It isn’t long before she finds out that Richard is a creep who’s been spying on her.

“Browse” also shows Richard doing some Internet stalking of his ex-wife Roxy Castillo (played by Jocelin Donahue), who is now remarried and expecting a child with her current husband. Is it a coincidence that Richard’s talking computer device and his ex-wife both have the same name? Richard finds out about the pregnancy because his ex-wife Roxy posted the baby news and an ultrasound photo on her social media.

Out of the blue, Richard’s ex-wife Roxy calls him to ask him to stop his phone harassment. She claims that someone with his phone number has been harassing her, but Richard vehemently denies it.

Roxy then makes a vague reference to a past problem that Richard had, and she says that her current husband Jim is a professional who can get Richard some help. Richard angrily yells at Roxy that he’s not a charity case, and then she hangs up on him. Is this a clue that maybe Richard is delusional and that he’s the cause of his own problems?

But Richard’s life is about to get worse. There’s a webcam model whom Richard has gotten to know in real life named Rachel (played by Allison Dunbar), whose online alias is Candy. Richard and Rachel/Candy met up for a sexual hookup, but unbeknownst to Richard, she video recorded them having sex. He only finds out when he sees that she’s put the sex video on her website without his permission—and his face is in full view, so there’s no hiding his identity.

The sex video causes problems for Richard at work, where he’s on shaky ground with his boss Daniel, who has hired a new employee who might be Richards’ replacement. Daniel has ordered Richard to fire three of Richard’s subordinates as part of the company’s downsizing plans. One of those subordinates is named Claire (played by Sarah Rafferty), who is obviously attracted to Richard, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

However, Richard likes and respects Claire. Therefore, he balks at Daniel’s demand that Claire has to be one of the three employees that Richard is supposed to fire. Meanwhile, Richard is suspicious of an information technology (IT) employee named Brendt (played by Abhi Sinha), whom he caught one day fiddling around with Richard’s work computer. Richard starts to wonder if Brendt has anything to do with Richard’s apparent identity theft.

All of this sounds like a good mystery, but the way it’s presented in “Browse” ends up being a jumbled mess. The neo-jazz musical score by Makaya McCraven suggests that “Browse” is an intriguing noir movie, but this is really an aimless story that doesn’t really know what to do and how to resolve the issues presented in the story.

There is nothing remarkable about any of the acting in the film. And even if the performances were great, the characters are written as shadowy people with no real backstories. The only thing about Richard’s past that’s really revealed is that he used to be married and he might have some psychiatric problems.

At one point in the movie, when Richard’s life is completely falling apart, he utters in despair: “I think I’m paralyzed from the neck up, if that makes any sense … I don’t know how to get back on track.” That pretty much describes the brain-dead turn this movie takes, as it leads viewers into an oblivion of disappointment and confusion.

FilmRise released “Browse” on digital and VOD on July 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Banana Split,’ starring Hannah Marks, Liana Liberto and Dylan Sprouse

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liana Liberato and Hannah Marks in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Banana Split”

Directed by Benjamin Kasulke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy “Banana Split” has a predominantly young white cast of characters (with some African American and Asian representation) portraying middle-class teenagers.

Culture Clash: Two women in their late teens befriend each other, even though one of them is dating the other’s ex-boyfriend, and they agree to keep their friendship a secret from the boyfriend.

Culture Audience: “Banana Split” will appeal primarily to people who like female-oriented comedies that are entertaining and have adult humor.

Hannah Marks, Addison Riecke, Liana Liberato and Jessica Hect in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Can you become best friends with the person who’s currently dating an ex-lover just a few months after the relationship ended? That’s the question posed in the breezy and somewhat raunchy comedy “Banana Split,” which has two women in their late teens going through this exact situation while hiding their friendship from the boyfriend. And making matters even more uncomfortable, the two women are also friends with the boyfriend’s best friend. If you’ve seen enough comedies like this one, then it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen, but the characters and the movie overall are so watchable and engaging that it’s an entertaining ride for most of the story.

The movie is told from the perspective of Los Angeles teenager April Krillholtz (played by Hannah Marks, who co-wrote the “Banana Split” screenplay with Joey Power), a brainy, neurotic type who’s a huge fan of “Harry Potter” and completely in love with Nicholas “Nick” Ellis (played by Dylan Sprouse), her high-school sweetheart of two years. A quick montage at the beginning of the film shows how April and Nick’s romance started and then began to deteriorate.

After having a platonic friendship, Nick and April decided that they wanted to start dating each other. But over time, their hot’n’heavy romance began to turn volatile, with a lot of arguing. (They even bickered during their prom date.)

And their relationship took a turn for the worst when they both got the news that they were accepted into universities on opposite coasts: Nick is staying on the West Coast to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, while April is headed to the East Coast for Boston University, on an academic scholarship. Apparently, April didn’t tell Nick that she had applied to a college in Boston, so when he finds out that she’s moving there, that’s the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, and they break up.

After graduating from high school, April is spending her summer working as a concessions employee at a movie theater. She’s the type of person who scolds a customer for ordering a hot dog because she thinks the customer is better off not letting “the smell of pig parts permeate the theater.” (In case it isn’t obvious, April doesn’t believe in eating meat.)

Before she moves away to go to Boston University, April is living at home with her divorced mother Susan (played by Jessica Hecht) and April’s foul-mouthed 13-year-old sister Agnes (played by Addison Riecke). Agnes has no sympathy for April’s breakup blues because Agnes makes it clear that she’s had a longtime crush on Nick and wants him for herself one day. Agnes also isn’t shy about describing her lust for Nick in explicit ways.

Agnes is the type of precocious teen who likes to talk about how much she knows about sex to shock or anger people (namely, her sister). The two siblings frequently get into immature, curse-filled shouting matches that’s kind of hilarious to watch. Their permissive mother Susan just wants to keep the peace while telling a little too much information about her own sex life. The dynamics between these three characters (who are usually only seen together around a dining room table) make for some of the best scenes in the movie. As the obnoxious and petulant Agnes, Riecke is a definite scene-stealer.

One night, April goes with two of her friends—Sally (played by Haley Ramm) and Molly (played by Meagan Kimberly Smith)—to a house party thrown by a fellow classmate. At the party, April gets very drunk because she knows, through social media, that Nick has already moved on to dating someone named Clara (played by Liana Liberato), a young woman who’s around the same age but who didn’t go to the same high school as April and Nick. In fact, April knows very little about Clara, and it bothers April that Nick was able to find a new girlfriend so quickly after their breakup.

But wouldn’t you know it, Clara is at the party too. Clara is not with Nick at the party, but she looks like she’s having fun and she’s being very social. April eyes Clara from a distance with jealousy and suspicion. And then, April is shocked to find out that Nick’s nerdy best friend Ben (played Luke Spencer Roberts) already knows Clara, because her parents are his godparents. (Stranger coincidences have happened in real life.) Ben has remained friendly with April after the breakup, and she understands that he’s still going to be Nick’s best friend. What she doesn’t like is for Ben to be friendly with Clara.

While an intoxicated April is hanging out by herself in a bedroom at the house, in walks Clara. The two have an awkward moment before Clara admits that she deliberately followed April into the room because she thought it was best that they finally meet. And it isn’t long before Clara and April begin hanging out at the party like long-lost friends.

They have such a good time together, that at the end of the night, Clara insists that April take her phone number. April asks, “What about Nick?” And Clara replies that Nick doesn’t have to know.

Meanwhile, when April tells Nick’s best friend Ben that Clara gave April her phone number, Ben (who senses that he’s going to be caught in the middle of this unusual arrangement) advises April not to become friends with Clara because it would be too weird and inappropriate. But, of course, there would be no “Banana Split” movie if April took that advice.

The first time that April and Clara hang out with each other, they go to a diner and have (you guessed it) a banana split together. The dessert can also be considered a metaphor for what their friendship turns out to be over the summer—sweet, kind of decadent and with a high probability of getting very messy.

The two women are almost opposites. College-bound April likes to plan ahead and has limited sexual experience. (She lost her virginity to Nick, who’s the only guy she’s had sex with so far.) Clara, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Fresno with no set plans, is more of a free-spirit, is more sexually experienced (Clara tells April that she’s had sex with 14 guys in her life so far), and is not as book-smart as April is.

The movie hints that their relationship could have turned sexual, when during one of their first hangouts together, Clara asks April if she wants to make out with her.  But April tells Clara that she’s not interested because she’s definitely heterosexual, and the subject is never brought up again.

“Banana Split” has a lot of montages of April and Clara doing things like going to the beach together, getting high together (mostly by smoking marijuana), and going out for meals together—not exactly the best way to keep their friendship a secret. Los Angeles is a big city, but there’s still a chance that other mutual friends of Nick and April (other than Ben) would find out.

During one of the first times that Clara and April spend time together, they end up talking about Nick’s sexual techniques, but that conversation quickly turns awkward when Clara finds out that Nick said things to April that he never said to her. April and Clara decide that the other big rule in their friendship (besides not telling Nick about their friendship) will be not to talk about Nick with each other.

To hide their friendship, they also agree not to post photos of themselves together on social media. And when April calls Clara, she shows up in Clara’s phone under the alias “Brad Pitt,” in reference to a joke that April made about Pitt’s movie “Fight Club.” (The reference to Pitt is kind of ironic, since Sprouse in “Banana Split” looks a lot like Pitt looked when he had long hair in the 1994 movies “Legends of the Fall” and “Interview With the Vampire.”)

The first time that April and Clara tell each other, “You’re my best friend,” is after they’ve checked into a motel together to get away from their routines and end up tripping on LSD together. And their relationship goes to the next friendship level when Clara, who has no family members in the area, asks April if she could meet her family. (You can imagine how dinner with April’s family goes, as long as bratty Agnes is there.)

Meanwhile, Ben knows all about April and Clara’s friendship. A great deal of what his character is all about is Ben nervously trying to keep the friendship a secret from Nick, while also scolding April and Clara about keeping it a secret from Nick.

Most of the characters in “Banana Split” are very defined in their personalities, but Nick is somewhat of a blank slate. It isn’t really made clear what his interests and goals are in life and what kind of family he has, so who he is as a person seems kind of vague throughout the movie.

What viewers do see of Nick is that he’s not your average pretty boy. For example, he has certain quirks, such as that he’s a fan of “Call Me Maybe” pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen and he shares April’s nerdy fandom of “Harry Potter.” But in other ways, he’s very much like a typical teenage guy who just wants to party.

“Banana Split” is the feature-film directorial debut of Benjamin Kasulke, who hits a lot of familiar beats that we’ve seen before in movies with female teenagers as the main characters. There’s the alternative-pop soundtrack (“Banana Split” features several songs written and performed by Annie Hart), the house party scene where one of the girls gets drunk and ends up vomiting, and the scene where a supposedly responsible character does something irresponsible just for the hell of it. (In “Banana Split,” Clara convinces April to leave her work shift two hours early just to hang out with her.)

But because the movie is so well-cast (Marks and Liberato give very convincing performances as opposite women who become fast friends), it makes these well-worn teen-comedy tropes enjoyable to watch. “Banana Split” is capably directed by Kasulke, and the movie benefits from the genuinely funny screenplay by Marks and Power.

And what about this story’s love triangle? Is Nick really over April? Are Nick and Clara falling in love, or is she just a fling before he leaves for college? And will he find out that April and Clara have become friends behind his back? The movie answers those questions, even though it’s pretty obvious that the real love story of “Banana Split” is the friendship that develops between April and Clara.

Vertical Entertainment released “Banana Split” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.