It’s hard not to feel empathy for a child who finds herself abruptly sent back to a birth country she doesn’t even remember—that’s why a path to citizenship or legal residency for DACA recipients has comparatively broad bipartisan support, even as every other element of immigration policy remains deeply polarized. Which is worse, though: being deported by heartless government goons, or getting banished by your own family? What Will People Say, the sophomore feature from Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq, dramatizes the latter scenario, loosely based on Haq’s own nightmarish experience as a teenager. Most people in this circumstance at least have friends and relatives who are fighting for them; seeing your trust betrayed by those very individuals constitutes a special circle of hell. Indeed, it’s so blatantly distressing that What Will People Say ultimately can’t do much more than generate reflexive outrage. What people will say is, “That’s not right,” but precious few would require the help of a movie to reach that conclusion.
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” a social worker keeps telling 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah)—and she hasn’t, at least by the standards of your average secular American or (in this case) European teen. A diligent student hoping to one day become a doctor, Nisha is a model kid in most respects; her sole vice is a penchant for sneaking out of the house to party (in a mild, barely even PG-13 sort of way) with friends, most of whom are ethnic Norwegians. One night, however, she risks sneaking her secret boyfriend into her bedroom, where he’s discovered—still fully dressed, as nothing has even happened—by her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain). Aided by Nisha’s equally rigid mother (Ekavali Khanna) and brother (Ali Arfan), Mirza subsequently more or less kidnaps his daughter, dragging her to the airport and flying her to Pakistan, where he parks her with the extended family he left behind. Suddenly, a young girl who’s been thoroughly assimilated into everyday Norwegian life has to learn, against her will, an entirely new culture.
Given that something not unlike this happened to Haq, it’s perhaps not surprising that she focuses almost exclusively on conveying Nisha’s alarm, dismay, and misery. Unfortunately, that approach, while undeniably moving, mostly strands this intelligent, resourceful young woman as a passive witness to her own story. Both of her parents come across as one-dimensional monsters—“I wish you’d been stillborn,” mom tells her at one point, and dad actually tries to goad her into jumping off a cliff to her death (!)—who are concerned only with their social standing in the émigré Pakistani community. A brief interlude during which Nisha seems to be warming a bit to her new home, thanks to an incipient romance, suggests possible richness and complexity (or at least Stockholm syndrome), but turns out merely to be setting up a scene of truly horrific sexual abuse. The film’s finest moment sees Nisha unwilling, once back in Norway, to report her parents to the authorities, or otherwise accept offers of assistance from deeply concerned social workers. Mozhdah, appearing in her first film, can’t match the astonishing, bone-deep understanding of psychic masochism and involuntary complicity that Nicole Kidman brought to her similarly fraught therapy sessions in Big Little Lies—this film isn’t operating on that rarefied level in any respect, frankly—but she does manage, in this quietly harrowing scene, to make Nisha more than just a helpless victim.