The lessons imparted by “Foreign Letters,” the debut feature of Israeli-American director Ela Thier, are ones that will be familiar to anyone who has gone through the tweener-girl film canon of titles like “Mean Girls,” and similar television tales. It’s not exactly controversial to argue in favor of loyalty to friends, self-defense against class bullies of any gender and a vaguely liberal disdain for the rudely arrogant rich. Thier adds to the mix a dash of multiculturalism, with two dislocated 12-year-old protagonists in a 1982 Connecticut suburb, Elisheva (Noa Rotstein) whose family have left Israel in protest at the first Lebanon War, and Thuy (Dalena Le), whose parents fled Vietnam after the fall of the southern government. Happily, she adds a certain reticence and nuance as well, elevating “Foreign Letters” above the “After-School Special” level of dramaturgy. The film is available on DVD through Film Movement.
At the film’s outset, Ellie and her family are settling into their new life in the shockingly spacious United States, a country where everyone seems to own a house. We are guided through the early stages of the adjustment by voice-overs reading the correspondence between Ellie and her friend Shlomit, who is still in Israel. Speaking almost no English, Ellie is at first both bewildered and a bit alienated in school. In a community in which the kids have mostly grown up together, she is not a part of already existing circles of friends and as a cultural outsider she is not privy to the etiquette – such as it is – of pre-adolescence. Thier sketches out the situation deftly in the film’s first few scenes in the school and its clear that she is relating first-hand experiences.
The film remains on solid ground as the friendship between Ellie and Thuy slowly evolves. Disappointingly, Thier, who also wrote the screenplay and edited the film, doesn’t explore the cultural differences between the two families, a side issue that might have set the film apart from the subgenre it comfortably inhabits. Given the girls’ parallel experiences of war and personal loss, this is a secondary theme that might have been worth some screen time. Fortunately, the film’s young lead actors have enough charm to hold our interest.
Problems arise, though, when Thier tries to raise the stakes, introducing a discordant note into the friendship through an incomprehensible plot development that sets the girls at odds with one another. The conflict doesn’t grow out of the situation and feels grafted onto the story, as if a writers’ workshop had told the filmmaker she “needed more conflict” for the movie to be compelling. Matters aren’t helped by the now all-but-obligatory pop-song-cum-dreamy-montage of the girls at play that is contemporary film shorthand designed to sidestep the need to explore characters and their relationships.
Still, despite its shortcomings, “Foreign Letters” is a rarity in the summer-movie swamp. It is not dependent on gaudy but empty CGI effects and comic-book violence, or on crude, vulgar humor drenched in misogyny. It might just be one of the few films around this summer that you could sit through with your tweener daughter and not cringe. And the delicacy with which Ela Thier handles her story, while occasionally a bit too muted, is a refreshing change from the empty thunder of most of the season’s other offerings. In that respect, it’s regrettable that Film Movement chose to forego their usual limited theatrical release, sending this one straight to their members’ mailboxes and video outlets.
“Foreign Letters,” written and directed by Ela Thier, will be available from Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) after August 7. It is already available from their subsidiary, The Jewish Film Club (www.jewishfilmclub.com).