TORONTO — In the first episode of the new season of "Little America" director Deepa Mehta guides a story that touches on the pressures some children of immigrant families feel to fit into traditional definitions of success.
It's a topic she's excited to tackle in her return to the eight-part Apple TV Plus series for Season 2, she says, adding that as an Indian-Canadian immigrant herself she can relate to the show's exploration of those “universal questions” she’s had since becoming a Canadian citizen.
“My whole search in life I feel has been — what does it mean to belong? Who sets the rules for what belonging is when you leave one country and you migrate to another?” says the Indian-born Canadian filmmaker.
The story Mehta commanded is loosely based on Detroit fashion designer Luke Song who catapulted into the spotlight after designing a bow hat worn by Aretha Franklin at U.S. President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
The episode stars “Minari” breakout Alan S. Kim as Luke, a young boy who helps his hat designer mother, played by Lee Jung-Eun, run a business. When radio personality Martha Jean, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, takes notice of Luke’s artistic talent, a conflict forms between his longing to become an artist and the expectations of his Korean mother and father for him to study medicine. Ki Hong Lee plays Luke as a young adult.
Much like the first season, the show is focused on the lives of immigrants who find varying paths toward the American dream.
Culture-mixing stories play out in dramatized vignettes — for instance a Japanese mother creating an all-woman baseball league in Ohio, and a nanny from Belize finds her calling when working for an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn.
In the episode Mehta directs, titled "Mr. Song," the vulnerability of a young man seeking to carve out a life based on his passion spoke to her. “I remember when I told my father I wanted to be a filmmaker, there was a sort of dead silence,” says Mehta whose dad was a film distributor at the time. “Maybe because I wasn’t really brilliant at school or something, but my father felt the way of tomorrow was science.”
Like Luke, before finding her own calling Mehta admits to moments in university when she would sit in her chemistry and physics classes in a state of dumbfounded longing.
“I’m just sitting there and saying, ‘what are they talking about?’ It’s when I realized that this is not what I wanted to do,” says Mehta. “It isn’t that my parents threw a fit, but my father said, remember two things in life — you will never know when you’re going to die and you will never know how a film will be received.”
The bet paid off for Mehta, whose internationally recognized films such as the elemental trilogy “Fire,” “Earth,” and the best foreign language Oscar nominee, “Water” are among the dozens of her works that use immigrant experiences as narrative anchors.
Mehta says she developed an immediate connection with the real-life Luke.
“He continues to be this dutiful son who’s celebrated all over the world, because for him, what’s important is warmth, duty, and responsibility,” says Mehta. “You can have all of that as well as not sacrifice your own art.”
While “Little America,” which is written and executive produced by Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon, continues to knit together multiple immigrant touchpoints through a hopeful lens, Mehta says that notionshouldn't stand on its own.
"We do need positivity, but not positivity that’s tokenism. It has to be based on reality,” she says.
“What I loved is that none of it felt that it was tokenism to different cultures, but a very universal theme. The theme of solidarity, the theme of loving, the theme of carrying and finding what’s good for you.”
“Little America'' Season 2 premieres globally on Dec. 9, on Apple TV Plus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2022.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press