Winning In America

By Amrita Singh | Drama
A teen competes at the National Spelling Bee and clashes with her coach-father.

Aishwarya is a young teenage girl getting ready to compete at the state level for a spot in the prestigious National Spelling Bee. Her immigrant father is ratcheting up his coaching, drilling her intently with flashcards at dinner. Aishwarya works hard, both to please her father and to do well herself.

The pressure culminates at the state contest, where Aishwarya faces fierce competition from the other talented, smart contestants. But the fiercest pressure may be from Aishwarya's father himself, who exerts his presence and high expectations on his daughter, even from the sidelines.

Written and directed by Amrita Singh, this short drama examines the family dynamics of an immigrant South Asian family as the daughter takes some key steps down a path of success and achievement. The National Spelling Bee has long held prestige as a marker of youthful talent, particularly for children of color and immigrants. Against this unique backdrop, Singh captures a shift between a father and a daughter, as Aishwarya asserts her definitions of success and then her future.

The film has an observational quality, with pared-down dialogue and deliberate pacing that seems to reflect Aishwarya's dogged preparation and reticent character. The doc-like camerawork has a sharp, sometimes acerbic eye for detail, alert to both the unique milieu of the spelling bee "scene" and the small ways Aishwarya is absorbing the world and people around her. Though she has little dialogue, actor Rithika Tudmilla conveys Aishwarya's desire to fulfill expectations, as well as a small but growing sense of rebellion within her. Playing a quiet character whose desire to please is increasingly at odds with her equally strong need to define herself, Tudmilla delivers upon a relatable coming-of-age arc with a culturally specific twist.

The key person in Aishwarya's orbit is her father, who is exacting and hard-driving. His intense coaching is motivated by his desire to see Aishwarya fulfill her promise. Or is it? As the spelling bee proceeds, the camera and editing deftly toggle between Aishwarya's experience in the stage spotlight and her father's equally intense emotions in the audience. We can't help but see who seems more invested, and neither can Aishwarya. She hits a small crisis point at a crucial juncture in the contest, heralding a shift in her determination to succeed on her terms.

Told with intelligence and simplicity, "Winning In America" is both a relatable coming-of-age story of a young person finding their voice and independence, a portrait of the fascinating milieu of spelling bees and a keenly observed portrayal of the dynamics of a South Asian immigrant family juggling different pressures of success and belonging. By the film's end, Aishwarya and her father make their true feelings known, and though the film stays true to its minimal, pared-down style, the conversation has plenty of resonance, shifting the balance between father and daughter and opening a new path for a young woman to embark upon, uncharted but at least her own.

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