I didn’t like the book and I didn’t like the movie.
I am so, so tempted to leave this review at just that one sentence but I know that would be a bit disingenuous since I am very much in the minority on this. So I’ll give you a slightly fuller picture and you will be your own judge. If you’d like to watch this movie, you have my blessing, and you’ll find it on Netflix.
Balram (Adarsh Gourav) is a servant in India; his caste is his destiny. He works for people he admires – Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra) – which doesn’t mean they’re nice, only that they’re wealthy, and upwardly mobile . Balram would like to be those things one day too, but for him there is no opportunity and no path toward a better life. Society itself is built around oppressing his kind and making sure they never, ever get their own ideas. So he must beat down his own path, with whatever meagre tools and talents he has. It’s going to be brutal, and it’s going to be bloody, but for Balram, entrepreneurship is the ultimate goal and the holy grail in one. It is worth any price.
The movie kept my attention better than the book, which I found tedious; the film benefits from brisk editing and a Jay-Z remix. I still didn’t enjoy it though, and I’m realizing it’s partially because the protagonist is so dislikable. Balram is hardly the first anti-hero though, and somehow I usually manage to cope. I suppose it’s that when I encounter other characters I dislike – Batman, for example – there’s usually something else I can root for, like good vs. evil. The White Tiger doesn’t give you that; it’s bad vs. worse and you can never be sure which of these slippery sides our protagonist is leaning toward. I guess I needed something to hold onto, and Balram’s underdog status just wasn’t cutting it. Balram’s story is given to us via a letter he’s writing to some successful Chinese businessman, who ultimately brushes him off, unimpressed by the story and the man, and I suppose I, too, was left cold by Balram’s plight. Perhaps you will feel more sympathetic.
Robert Rodriguez has two very different speeds when it comes to making movies: ultra violent, and children’s action-adventure. These may seem fairly disparate, but I think Rodriguez has just tapped into the truth that grown men and small children want pretty much the same things when it comes to movies, though one demographic wants a generous side of boob a little more than the other. The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl 3-D was my first Robert Rodriguez movie; imagine my surprise when years later I discovered his oeuvre wasn’t all spy kids and junior super heroes.
We Can Be Heroes is Rodriguez’s newest film, a family-friendly one for Netflix. It’s not about super heroes, though it does have plenty of them in it, including Rodriguez’s old friends, Lavagirl and Sharkboy, who are now all grown up (the original Lavagirl Taylor Dooley returns, but Taylor Lautner is replaced by JJ Dashnaw) and fighting as part of the Heroics team, which includes Miracle Man (Boyd Holbrook) and Tech-no (Christian Slater, for some reason), and is led by Marcus (Pedro Pascal) from his office. Marcus doesn’t fight anymore, a promise he made to his daughter Missy (YaYa Gosselin) due to his single-father status. But when aliens invade, the first thing they do is round up and neutralize all the super heroes, leaving behind only their children, who take it upon themselves to save the day. Missy is the rare super hero offspring who seems to have no powers of her own, but is a natural born leader – a challenge to Wild Card (Nathan Blair) who is technically able to assume any power but lacks the focus to do so reliably. Also in their little gang: Noodles (Lyon Daniels), a tween who can stretch his limbs to Elastigirl limits; Wheels (Andy Walken), a kid in a wheel with a predictable nickname who’s actually as strong as he is smart; Ojo (Hala Finley), a girl whose strange drawings seem to predict the near-future; twins Rewind (Isaiah Russell-Bailey) and Fast Forward (Akira Akbar) who can do with time exactly as their names suggest; Facemaker (Andrew Diaz), who can rearrange his features a la Mr. Potato Head; Slo-Mo (Dylan Henry Lau), whose super questionable skill is doing everything very slowly; A Capella (Lotus Blossom), whose song notes can make things levitate; and little Guppy (Vivien Blair), the adorable offspring of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, who can move and manipulate water.
Their parents, the real super-heroes, were captured because they failed to work together. Their squabbles broke the team up and left them vulnerable. Their kids will have to learn to do better, to make their special skills complement each other’s if there’s to be any chance of saving the earth from alien domination. To make matters worse, Heroics HQ is headed by Ms. Granada (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), whose motivations are questionable. Who can they trust and how will they save the world? And how will they manage to carry out such an important mission on their very first? You’ll have to watch to find out, but suffice to say, kids in the audience will likely be pleased. Adults not so much. The kid acting is nothing to write home about. Missy, the lead, is inconsistent, and A Capella, the singer, is downright annoying, a smug little shit who can’t stop hogging the spotlight. Noodles and Guppy are quite watchable though, with Guppy especially cute when she goes into “shark frenzy” when she loses her temper.
I applaud the attempt to come up with some half-way original super powers as most grown up movies don’t even do that. They’re not all winners, but everyone gets at least one moment in the sun. And there’s a training montage that I know is going to be a huge hit for at least four boys that I know, two of whom just got obstacle course stuff (like slack lines) so they can do ‘ninja warrior’ training at home, and two of whom already have a course or two set up thanks to their intrepid grandfather who grants all kinds of adventure wishes. This movie makes their super hero fantasies a reality, and it validates their contributions, present and future, to society. When so many forces tell them they’ll have to wait to grow up, this movie tells them they’re valuable, resourceful, and capable right now – and that’s the kind of soul food that nourishes their dreams, even if the packaging seems kind of corny and uninspired to you and I. So while We Can Be Heroes isn’t a great movie, it’s destined to be kid-approved, and might even inform their play and pretend for the rest of their holidays, which means less work for you! That’s what we call a win-win.
When Aditi (Priyanka Chopra) and Niren (Farhan Akhtar) Chaudhary find themselves pregnant for the third time, it’s not exactly a happy occasion for everyone. They have a son, Ishaan, but lost a daughter and are afraid of it happening again. Niren doesn’t want to risk it but Aditi, once a Muslim now a Christian, won’t abort. But Aditi and Niren both carry a tricky gene that runs a 25% chance of passing SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency) on to their child, which means the baby would have such a compromised immune system that he or she would be prone to severe infections with no ability to fight them off. Such babies rarely live to see their first birthday. Their baby, a daughter, is born, and they name her Aisha, which means life. But a trip to London confirms that Aisha does in fact have SCID and without very expensive bone marrow and stem cell transplants, she will die.
Despite all this drama, Aisha (Zaira Wasim, who is narrating this from some point in the future) insists this is a romantic film, about her parents. Married 8 years at this point, they are suddenly in a long distance relationship, with Aditi in London with Aisha, and Niren back home in India with Ishaan. They had married out of caste, a true love marriage. But having a sick kid and being away from everyone you love is a real test on any relationship. But a worse test is coming: Aisha the narrator has already told us she is dead. What will losing a(nother) child do to Aditi and Niren?
Priyanka Chopra is stunning, even in late 90s mom jeans. More than that, she’s really good in this, even as she shifts between mother caring for her daughter’s health to caring more for her happiness. And as one half of a complicated couple, She’s got great chemistry with Akhtar, who brings his best to the film as well. This film is based on a true story, and it feels very much like the actors respect their real-life counterparts while also making the characters very much their own.
At the end of Aisha’s life, Aditi and Niren are faced with impossible choices and they don’t agree. The strain is of course further complicated by the loss of their first baby, who Niren has tried to forget. The death of a child is…unfathomable. Many couples separate in their grief. What will become of Aisha’s mom and dad, who never stop being exactly that? Writer-director Shonali Bose makes great use of flash backs and flash forwards to lighten the mood or break up the bleakness. The movie is overlong but keep going, it’s worth it. It’s emotional and trying but ultimately rewarding.