The coming-out trope is getting old. If, like me, you’re a veteran of Ottawa’s Inside Out Film Festival, you might be wondering when and if the day will come when gay and lesbian cinema will focus on more than the coming out moment. I am generalizing, of course, because a great movie can make any theme or scenario sparkle with the life-giving energy of novelty.
The hope, then, was that The Signature Move would give us a fresh take on an old story; after all, the main character, Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza) and her mother (played by Shabana Azmi), are of Pakistani background and the immigrant perspective might have provided audiences with an unexpected entry point into Zaynab’s coming out story. The problem is that it fails to dwell in the immigrant experience with any depth, leaving us with a storyline that feels familiar, too much so.
Zaynab is an immigration lawyer, a detail that could have enriched the film. Instead, she might as well have been a doctor because her job does not seem to influence the narrative in any way, other than perhaps to build on the caricature of lawyers as being uptight and somewhat conservative people.
Zaynab’s love interest and foil, the charismatic, free-spirited and Mexican Alma (Sari Sanchez) isn’t interested in relationships, least of all with a closeted woman. Her family, unlike Zaynab’s mother, is not homophobic. Alma’s mother is a fascinating character and her background story of being a woman wrestler resonates with Zaynab’s wrestling lessons and eventual match.
Here, too, I was left disappointed. Although wrestling represents the struggle and fight Zaynab faces internally and with her mother as she comes out, it isn’t woven into the narrative with the desired effect. Instead, it is presented as a lighthearted and funny training that turns into something predictably more serious for the last five minutes of the film. The match Zaynab fights in is a particularly important moment. Wearing a mask, another metaphor for the closeted queer, she faces what seems like an unimportant enemy. The real enemies are her internalized homophobia and her mother—yet neither of these conflicts are dealt with in a way that feels real.
I would have preferred for the main character to face her mother in more direct ways. Zaynab’s relationship with her mom is the gem of the film. A widow, the mother has permanently moved into her daughter’s house and spends all day in front of the television, drinking tea, keeping an eye out (with her binoculars) for potential bachelors on the street corner. She is exceptionally well played by Indian actress Shabana Azmi, who delivers a touching testament to the bond between mothers and daughters. Hers is the only performance that has convinced me and moved me.
The moment in which the three paintings on the wall strike the mother as being out of order is just perfect. At long last, the mother gets off her reclining chair and for what? Something as mundane, yet as essential, as fixing the order of the three paintings that decorate her daughter’s wall. The paintings represent the stuff of our quotidian lives that fade into the background, those things we no longer see. The little paintings are a gentle metaphor for the importance of seeing, and failing to notice, what is right in front of us.
My grievance with The Signature Move is that it has two moods that don’t seem to connect at the level of form: the quirky, light-hearted and funny atmosphere which corresponds to Zaynab’s love affair with Alma and her wrestling, and the more subdued, dramatic and nuanced domestic life she shares with her mother. I had an aesthetic and visceral preference for the latter and think that the film is worth watching for this alone.
Please don’t let my criticism or disappointment stop you from going to see this film. As I’ve said, the coming out trope no longer interests me unless it’s doing something new at the level of form or content, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a politically relevant one. All queer cinema is should be celebrated and I hope you’ll check this film out and enjoy it for what it is: a lighthearted coming out story told from an immigrant perspective.
Back again this year between on the weekend of November 10-12 at the National Gallery of Canada, here is the calendar of this year’s festival. The Signature Move plays on Friday, November at 7:15 p.m.
The Inside Out Film Festival takes place November 10-12, with events around town and films at the National Gallery of Canada. For a full listing of films and events, including admission prices, please visit the Inside Out’s webpage. Single screening and full access ticket packages are available.