May 19, 2024 6:23 am

Aisha
Aisha

Aisha

Letitia Wright gives a quietly powerful performance in “Aisha” as a young Nigerian woman seeking asylum in Ireland and struggling to overcome one bureaucratic obstacle after another. 

Writer-director Frank Berry’s film never devolves into melodrama – if anything, it may be understated to a fault – but he grounds her plight in an authentic mixture of daily frustrations and sporadic joys. The absurdism of the consistent hardships she endures is maddening: An administrator at the accommodation center where she lives won’t hand her an important piece of mail she needs, so she misses the bus to her part-time job at a hair salon, where the owner scolds her for her tardiness. It’s that sort of thing, day in and day out. She just can’t seem to catch a break. There’s racism behind some of these roadblocks, as well as a certain sadism. To borrow a phrase that’s been used repeatedly in recent years to describe the treatment of immigrants to America, the cruelty is the point. 

Nevertheless, Aisha perseveres. Wright, so funny and fierce in the “Black Panther” movies, harnesses that same fire here, indicating her character’s loneliness and anguish through her restrained body language and measured speech. We learn a little about the ordeal that drove her from her homeland through meetings with the immigration lawyer assigned to her case (Loran Cranitch). Still, she’s understandably reluctant to revisit these horrors in detail. Wright gives us just enough to sympathize but not enough for the indifferent officials who will determine her character’s fate. 

It’s not all misery, though. We catch early glimpses of the warm and easy way Aisha connects with people as an aspiring beautician — putting makeup on the other women in the group home and drawing out their smiles by helping them feel lovely for an afternoon. Berry immerses us in the rhythms of Aisha’s daily existence, the highs and lows, with long takes and unobtrusive, documentary-style camerawork. A Muslim woman, Aisha wakes up early every morning to pray, and these solitary moments in the stillness seem to sustain her.  

This fly-on-the-wall approach becomes especially crucial when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Conor (Josh O’Connor), a new overnight security guard at the center who serves as the rare source of kindness in her life. Berry lets us sit in silence with them as they exchange an unspoken understanding over midnight meals in the industrial kitchen, and their small talk on the bus eventually evolves into good-natured teasing and even laughter.  

O’Connor, who’s so hot right now between two extremely different roles in “Challengers” and “La Chimera,” reveals another facet of his talent here. Gone is the swagger of those performances; with his big, goofy smile, Conor exudes a hangdog tenderness and an earnest desire to atone for the sins of his past. O’Connor is so effortlessly appealing and sweet, he makes you wish there were more to his character. Conor is almost too good to be true in the way he shows up for Aisha, no matter the time of day, no matter where she’s living once the system forces her to relocate. Still, whether they can forge some lasting relationship provides another source of simmering tension on top of the central question of whether Aisha can remain in the country. As the film progresses, Berry increasingly depicts her isolation, framing her alone at a bus stop or on the sidewalk in front of a small-town supermarket. 

Unfortunately for Aisha – and so many others, as “Aisha” convincingly conveys – there are no quick and easy answers. The film’s abrupt but realistic ending, which surely will feel unsatisfying for many viewers, seems to suggest as much. 

Letitia Wright gives a quietly powerful performance in “Aisha” as a young Nigerian woman seeking asylum in Ireland and struggling to overcome one bureaucratic obstacle after another.  Writer-director Frank Berry’s film never devolves into melodrama – if anything, it may be understated to a fault – but he grounds her plight in an authentic mixture of daily frustrations and sporadic joys. The absurdism of the consistent hardships she endures is maddening: An administrator at the accommodation center where she lives won’t hand her an important piece of mail she needs, so she misses the bus to her part-time job at a hair salon, where the owner scolds her for her tardiness. It’s that sort of thing, day in and day out. She just can’t seem to catch a break. There’s racism behind some of these roadblocks, as well as a certain sadism. To borrow a phrase that’s been used repeatedly in recent years to describe the treatment of immigrants to America, the cruelty is the point.  Nevertheless, Aisha perseveres. Wright, so funny and fierce in the “Black Panther” movies, harnesses that same fire here, indicating her character’s loneliness and anguish through her restrained body language and measured speech. We learn a little about the ordeal that drove her from her homeland through meetings with the immigration lawyer assigned to her case (Loran Cranitch). Still, she’s understandably reluctant to revisit these horrors in detail. Wright gives us just enough to sympathize but not enough for the indifferent officials who will determine her character’s fate.  It’s not all misery, though. We catch early glimpses of the warm and easy way Aisha connects with people as an aspiring beautician — putting makeup on the other women in the group home and drawing out their smiles by helping them feel lovely for an afternoon. Berry immerses us in the rhythms of Aisha’s daily existence, the highs and lows, with long takes and unobtrusive, documentary-style camerawork. A Muslim woman, Aisha wakes up early every morning to pray, and these solitary moments in the stillness seem to sustain her.   This fly-on-the-wall approach becomes especially crucial when she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Conor (Josh O’Connor), a new overnight security guard at the center who serves as the rare source of kindness in her life. Berry lets us sit in silence with them as they exchange an unspoken understanding over midnight meals in the industrial kitchen, and their small talk on the bus eventually evolves into good-natured teasing and even laughter.   O’Connor, who’s so hot right now between two extremely different roles in “Challengers” and “La Chimera,” reveals another facet of his talent here. Gone is the swagger of those performances; with his big, goofy smile, Conor exudes a hangdog tenderness and an earnest desire to atone for the sins of his past. O’Connor is so effortlessly appealing and sweet, he makes you wish there were more to his character. Conor is almost too good to be true in the way he shows up for Aisha, no matter the time of day, no matter where she’s living once the system forces her to relocate. Still, whether they can forge some lasting relationship provides another source of simmering tension on top of the central question of whether Aisha can remain in the country. As the film progresses, Berry increasingly depicts her isolation, framing her alone at a bus stop or on the sidewalk in front of a small-town supermarket.  Unfortunately for Aisha – and so many others, as “Aisha” convincingly conveys – there are no quick and easy answers. The film’s abrupt but realistic ending, which surely will feel unsatisfying for many viewers, seems to suggest as much.  Read More