Minari won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and this is extraordinarily appropriate. It checks all the boxes of a stereotypical Sundance indie so hard that I almost can't think of the last film to check them harder (not even the 2021 winner of the same two awards, CODA, which feels like it was vat-created to appeal to Sundance audiences). It is an enormous credit to Lee Isaac Chung, the film's writer and director, that Minari is nevertheless emotionally honest and pleasurable to watch; while it would simply be a lie to suggest that this is in any way fresh, surprising, or challenging, its charms are extremely real and well-earned. They are modest charms, but, well, charming.

The story is based on Chung's own childhood experiences as the son of Korean immigrants trying to make a go of it farming a plot of land in rural Arkansas, which allows the film to demonstrate one of my favorite axioms: it takes a lot of specificity to get at truly universal feelings. Certainly, Minari is specific as all hell in its precise depiction of how the Yi family, lead by doggedly ambitious father Jacob (Steven Yeun) and far more pragmatic and pessimistic mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) conceives of itself, as the four members of that family - the children are Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and director stand-in David (Alan Kim) - each relate to the problem of assimilating into U.S. culture versus retaining some core of Korean-ness in different ways and to different degrees. And the setting in Arkansas is awfully damn particular as well, as is the work we see Jacob and Monica doing both to homestead in the middle of nowhere, as well as to make ends meet sexing newly-hatched chicks (possibly my favorite single detail in the entire film, because of how unnaturally detailed it is in a way you'd never think of it it wasn't drawn from life: they used to do this work in California, where Jacob was a legend among chicken-sexers, but part of the motivation for moving to Arkansas was that Monica wasn't quite fast enough for the high-speed world of California chicken-sexing. In Arkansas, she can be competitive).

Fairly early on, as the parents realise they can't work two grueling jobs and raise kids, they arrange for Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn You-jung) to travel from Korea to help them, and this sets up basically the entire rest of the movie: a kind of perpetual give-and-take between David and Soon-ja, with the former not at all understanding the strange, ungrandma-like person who is now such a loud and omnipresent factor in his life. Obviously - I cannot stress the word obviously enough - the arc of the film is going to consist of them coming to some kind of peaceful understanding of each other, and it is also credit to Chung's directing and Youn's acting that watching this arc express itself didn't make me roll my eyes all the way out of my goddamn head.

Minari has two primary strengths. One of them I have already touched on: it is a very exact movie. How much of this actually happened to Chung and how much is an artistic re-interpretation of his life, I cannot say, though either way, it comes from a place of obvious intimacy; "write what you know" has resulted in plenty of unbearably stilted, tiny-minded art, but when it works, it can produce some extremely rich and insightful moments of pure humanity. Minari has examples of both of these, mostly due to its wobbliness around whose story this is and how to tell it. For the most part, it's about David and from his perspective, which of course makes sense given what the project is and where it came from; but it will from time to time pivot over to be from Jacob's perspective or (less often) Monica's, and it's extremely inconsistent about how much it wants to give the adults interior lives that we have direct access to, instead of presenting them as the slightly terrifying, confusing figures who loom over David and guide the course of his life without him entirely understanding how or why.

As a general rule, the film is weakest when it's most about Jacob and Monica and the attempt to get the farm going, largely because this material is the talkiest and least emotionally involving. The best parts, almost objectively, focus on David and Soon-ja, not least because Youn's performance is surely the best among all the actors in the film, and probably the best thing about Minari generally. I have absolutely no doubt that at some point, probably multiple points, during the planning, financing, and especially the marketing of the film, the phrase "this year's The Farewell" came up, and that's not a comparison that flatters Minari overmuch (it's a much less subtle film with considerably blander visuals). But it does underline how strong the grandson/grandmother relationship is, and how much amusing prickliness and legitimate warmth comes out of the interactions between Youn and Kim, the latter of whom isn't giving a child performance for the ages, though he's good at being adorable.

It's a very nice, sweet movie, though in proper indie movie fashion, it darkens and grows troubled as it goes along, in a pretty abrupt melodramatic swerve that seems to exist more so Chung can give the film a climax than because it feels even remotely organic, either narratively or emotionally. And its niceness and sweetness come at a cost of being somewhat bland: this is a giant nothing of a movie stylistically, with the same loose, shaggy naturalism of a thousand slice-of-life indie movies before it, and I regret to imagine, a thousand slice-of-life indie movies to follow it. It's pretty in a somewhat nondescript way, relying on natural lighting and the inherent sentimental appeal of crops growing in the warm sunlight extensively to give it any kind of distinctive look at all; mostly it's just a bunch of the usual slightly shake medium shots in brownish rooms.

Whether the film needs more than this is an open question. It has a set of goals, very low-key and modest, and it executes them; in its scenes with Youn, it even executes them very well. I cannot imagine ever thinking about it again for all the rest of my days, but that's better than all the films of this sort that stick in my mind because of how annoying they are.