“Definition Please” begins with wee Monica Chowdry winning the Scribbs National Spelling Bee. She claims the title after using up all the time-buying requests allowed, including the one that gives the actor-writer-director Sujata Day’s sincere, Bollywood-winking film its title.
Turns out Monica’s ailing mom has been watching video of her little one triumph yet again. Grown-up Monica (Day) lives with her ailing mother in Greensburg, Pa. Monica has the smarts to secure a clinical research position, which she does early in the movie. So why is this minor celebrity with the major vocabulary sticking around?
She has her reasons: to care for her mother (Anna Khaja); to hang out with her bestie, Krista (Lalaine), a wisecracking bartender; to coach future spelling bee champs. But mostly, she’s stuck. Will the return of her older brother, Sonny, nudge her?
Ritesh Rajan brings overgrown puppy energy to Sonny, who returns home to mark the one-year anniversary of their father’s death. Mother Jaya hopes he’ll stay. That is the last thing Monica wants.
More touching than riotous, “Definition Please” proves to be impressively nuanced once it begins revealing why Monica is so prickly around Sonny: He has bipolar disorder. Day depicts Monica’s frustrations, fears and resentments with a patience and depth that feels true to the experience of loving a sibling who is struggling with mental illness.
Even more convincing is Khaja’s warm portrayal of a mother who needs her kids to get along. Her machinations may be the stuff of comedy, but her frightened yet steadfast approach to Sonny at his worst is a thing of tender beauty.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. Watch on Netflix.