Anil and his teammates chill in Fondi

An old friend of mine, Dev Khanna, recently directed a feature. He’s done several shorts before (many have played TIFF and they’re great) and I was excited to see his feature, which I got the chance to do last week as part of a private press/friends/word-of-mouth screening intended to introduce the film to pals who may be able to get the word out about it in advance of the theatrical run.

So, biases declared up front, this is a movie directed by a friend of mine, and I definitely would like to help him drum up interest for the theatrical release (the film will have a week long run at the Royal in Toronto starting this weekend). However, I also wanted to write an honest review, because I  had so many thoughts about it during and after the screening.

The film takes place in the early ’90s and centres on Anil, a teenage Indian-American boy (born in Jersey, but still the only non-white kid on his team) who goes to a small town in Italy with his soccer team to compete in a tournament. All the boys have high hopes for the trip, mostly revolving around scoring – not on the soccer field, but with the hot italian girls that they’re inevitably going to meet in the picturesque town of Fondi.

Anil is a thoughtful, quiet type, his shyness sometimes manifesting as frustrating timidity and powerlessness and at other times as outright cowardice. When he sees the beautiful au pair of their wealthy host, Anil is immediately smitten. However, an ugly, half-witnessed incident involving one of his teammates ruins his chance for romance and leaves Anil stuck between strong feelings of guilt, desire, impotent rage and confusion.

Even though there are scenes in Fondi ’91 in which certain characters’ actions and inactions were  frustrating and their motivations inscrutable, the film made me think. A lot. My only real qualm with it is the fact that the film treats women – and the often troubling things that happen to them – as catalysts for the important things that happen to men. The women are secondary – there to pique Anil’s interest, arouse his desire, make him feel good and bad, and teach him valuable lessons – they’re not agents in their own lives, just supporting players in his.

the beautiful au pair

the beautiful au pair, with her milky skin

The young au pair – the object of Anil’s desire and the catalyst for all the chaos in the film – is beautiful, innocent, foreign (therefore nearly wordless) and pure. She’s a blank slate onto which Anil can project all his own mixed up feelings. He spends much of the film impotently following her around, desperate for her attention but unable to express this desire. The pain she endures is only relevant as it relates to Anil, and while he also has his share of pain to cope with, his is handled with more depth. The film is about him, after all.

This is a very unusual coming of age story, one which explores not just the innocent desires of well meaning teens, but also sexual pressure and assault – all incredibly complex and uncomfortable subjects to put on screen in what seems, ostensibly, to be a lighthearted romance. In fact, Fondi ’91 is much more than that. It’s a complicated and often sad story about how painful and downright brutal it can be to learn some of life’s most important lessons about love and morality.

Of course, those minor quibbles about the female characters aside, I really enjoyed Fondi ’91. The story has real sensitivity and emotion at its heart, and I think it’s a pretty mature and well crafted debut from a promising Canadian director. I encourage you to go out and see it, Torontonians.