Immigration policy critics of late often seem to yearn for a nation in which everybody “talks American” and otherwise tries to conform as much as possible to a certain mainstream homogeneity, as if the goal of the melting pot society were to obliterate all original characteristics of its ingredients. Irked by others’ native tongues and ways, they seldom consider that assimilation isn’t easy — particularly the leaving-things-behind part.
The protagonist in “The Price” (which debuted on the festival circuit earlier this year as “Dara Ju”) is in many ways living the modern American Dream: He’s a young man from recent immigrant stock climbing up capitalism’s tallest ladder — the Manhattan financial sector. But the ascent seems to require he detach himself from the Nigerian emigre family whose needs he now finds embarrassing, and who won’t let him loose without a struggle.
Like that central figure, writer-director Anthony Onah is a Nigerian-born Harvard grad, and his accomplished first feature carries more than a touch of autobiographical inspiration. The aspects that are less inspired — though they drive much of the narrative — feel somewhat generically derived from the likes of “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Wall Street” and so forth, giving the film a core of over-familiarity despite its comparatively fresh culture-clash angle. Nonetheless, this is a thoughtfully crafted, elegant-looking indie drama that suggests a bright future for Onah.
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Seyi (aka “Shay”) Ogunde (Ami Ameen) is a junior trader at a large downtown finance firm, where looming staff cutbacks and the pressure to perform heighten an already competitive environment. Shay copes with this tension, in part, by snorting prescription amphetamines. He’s one black face in a sea of frat bros whose families most certainly aren’t one generation removed from Third World poverty. While there’s no overt workplace racism, it seems a given that Shay will have to work twice as hard to get half as far as his colleagues. Realizing his immediate boss is more inclined to steal credit for his ideas than promote him for them, he goes directly to an executive with a major tip that a friend had given him in confidence. This duly boosts Shay’s status, but the intel might also draw unwelcome attention from SEC investigators on the lookout for illegal insider trading. His big break could easily prove his downfall.
Meanwhile, he meets Liz (Lucy Griffiths), a med student trying to distance herself from the lessons of intolerance taught by her conservative Texas parents. Initially skittish — she has a long-distance boyfriend to consider — she succumbs to his wooing, only to find he’s secretive and evasive about other areas of his life.
Not only does Shay dislike talking about his family, he actively avoids them. Living in Manhattan ostensibly because the commute from Hackensack would be onerous, he clearly relishes the separation from blood ties he experiences as suffocating. His father (Souleymane Sy Savane) was sickly even before a recent stroke; his mother (Michael Hyatt) is a guilt-inducing breadwinner; his sister (Hope Olaide Wilson) is justifiably infuriated that he does so little to help them out. There’s pressure on Shay to join (and bankroll) a long-planned collective trip back home to Nigeria that’s shaping up as Dad’s last wish. But that’s the last thing this prodigal son wants.
Though smoothly put together — the movie’s dominant flavor is the sleekness of the high-bourgeoise environs to which Shay has gained access — “The Price” doesn’t build as much tension as it ought to, nor deliver as much catharsis as intended after our protagonist’s various crises come to a head. This is largely because the major plot arcs seldom spring surprises: We can guess the kind of trouble he’ll eventually find himself in at work, and how the conflict between his manufactured personality and his repressed, yet deeper, blood and cultural ties will impact his relationships with Liz and his family members. (The one big reveal, of the cause behind Shay’s longtime enmity toward his invalid father, is somewhat underwhelming.)
Onah’s screenplay feels like it got perhaps one too many polishes: It’s tight and makes a number of familiar points deftly, as when a fearful furtive glance in the street over Shay’s skin color eventually triggers a furious outburst at a passing stranger. But the complex overall themes here are dealt with in such abrupt fashion that their treatment ultimately feels superficial.
Still, you can hardly indict Onah for trying to make complex themes briskly palatable, particularly in the context of a first feature so assured on nearly all levels. The well-cast performers are uniformly solid, with all visual design contributions handsome and Enis Rotthoff’s score effective.