Friday, May 8, 2020

Review: Sweetness in the Belly

Release date: May 8, 2020
Running time: 110 minutes
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kunal Nayyar, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Wunmi Mosaku

Sweetness in the Belly tells the story of Lilly (Fanning), who was abandoned in Africa as a child.  She grew up studying the Quran with a great Sufi wali and is sent to Ethiopia after reaching adulthood.  After establishing a life in Ethiopia, Lily is forced to flee for England when civil war breaks out.  She befriends Amina (Mosaku), an Ethiopian refugee who has fled the same war.  Together they begin a mission to reunite people with their scattered families. 

Sweetness in the Belly is an interesting premise.  The story of Lilly, as a white muslim Ethiopian who is forced to return to England leads to some different interactions between her, the other refugees, and the people handling the processing of the Ethiopians.  It also means that she can be ostracized by other Ethiopian refugees because of how she looks.  Dakota Fanning does a good job as Lilly, but her performance is surprisingly flat.  Part of that is probably the Lilly character, but Fanning never seems to be fully comfortable as this persona, despite giving a good effort.  Luckily the rest of the cast make up for this, specifically Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as the Ethiopian doctor Aziz.  He is charming and charistmatic in this role, and definitely commands the scene whenever he is in it.  Kunal Nayyar was a welcome addition, and plays a likable doctor that just doesn't get much screen time.  And Wunmi Mosaku as Lilly's friend Amina is a strong female force to help balance out Lilly's generally timid nature.  

However, although this is based on a book the story itself seems to jump around and cover a little too much for the modest length of the film.  As is common in movie adaptations of literature, the film tries to include a lot of ideas in a single theatrical work, and it doesn't quite hit them all.  The movie focuses a lot on the Ethiopian civil war, but doesn't go into enough detail to really give you specifics.  It also focuses on Lilly and her life in England, but again, doesn't give you enough substance.  The refugee experience of Lilly seems to be completely cut out, and the formative time she spent at the camps is barely touched.  It's a tough criticism because this movie does seem to want to explore a lot of interesting areas, but it just doesn't have the time or care to really dig into them.  However, despite the lack of depth the film is a great gateway into Ethiopia and the refugee experience, with some powerful and beautiful scenes.  Some of the horrible experiences of the Ethiopian refugees are touched on with sometimes graphic detail.  And the sense of community that Lilly finds, although abrupt at times, is moving.  

Sweetness in the Belly explores some interesting and powerful concepts, with great characters and a beautiful, but not fully developed, story.

Rent it.

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