Directed by: Akhil Deva
Distributed by: TBD
Written by Anna Harrison
“Distant” opens with a mother and her child on the bus, silently wrapped around each other, the handheld closeup giving the image a hazy dreamlike quality—only when an alarm clock goes off do we realize that this is, in fact, a dream of some long-ago memory. Richie (Manahar Kumar), now all grown up, gets thrown back into the present day as he wakes in his cramped apartment at 3:30am and prepares to pull double duty at both the bar and gas station where he works. He lives alone, and even though his coworkers make goodhearted jabs about the long hours he pulls and his boss encourages him to go after a bonus, Richie is alone at work, too, with an unbreachable gulf between himself and those around him.
The technical aspects of “Distant” only serve to reinforce Richie’s isolation as director of photography Jin Kim bathes the film in grays and blues, the dreariness of Richie’s life seeping into the world around him, too. It’s not just the long work hours that eat away at him, though—his mother, still in India, is dying, though Richie has been doing his best to send money over to continue her treatments. Though his mother never says anything, director, writer, and editor Akhil Deva skillfully intercuts images of young Richie and his mother back in India with current day, and so without saying a word we understand the importance of this relationship.
Though he works hard for his mother, Richie’s role for much of the film is a passive one: he does what his boss tells him, he listens to his mother’s doctor and can only plead with him to be patient for the next check. When a bank robber enters the gas station where Richie is currently working, it takes very little for Richie to give away the location of the money. We are primed to expect the heroes of our stories to go down swinging, but Deva keeps things much more realistic as Richie quickly puts his hands up in surrender when faced with the barrel of a gun. Even when the robber begins to hurl racial insults, Richie remains inactive, and Kumar sells his terror well—if he puts a toe out of line he’s not only condemning himself but his mother, too. No heroics here. Even after the robbery, which should by all accounts be a traumatic event, Richie barely allows himself a moment to rest before going back to his bartending job.
Only when Richie’s boss (Shekeb Sekander) at the bar denies Richie his bonus does Richie finally act, and even then it’s only after his boss told Richie to “grow a fucking pair and let [his mother] go.” Finally, after so long of wishing Richie would take a stand for himself (while simultaneously understanding why he does not and why he has to walk on eggshells), he snaps, and the conclusion is equal parts satisfying and saddening—is it a triumph? Or is it only a momentary victory that will cost much more? The mingling of disparate emotions is the greatest strength of “Distant.” If at times it can feel a little overwrought (a slow-motion run at the end feels a bit unearned) or under-acted, the earnestness with which it approaches its story helps overcome the weaknesses, and it was made with a level of technical care that belies its small budget (the music by Shashwath Bulusu is a standout), so while Richie may feel the distance between himself and home, the viewer never feels it between themselves and the film.
“Distant” has played at film festivals around the country such as the Smoky Mountain Film Festival.
You can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd, Twitter, Instagram, and her website, and you can read her interview with star Manahar Kumar here.