Streaming’s Hidden Treasures: The Big Sick

Image: Amazon/Lionsgate

Streaming has changed the way we view films. It is a change that has been welcomed by many and sniffed at by others. Like it or not, however, Netflix, Amazon and the like play a huge part in being a film-lover today. These platforms have vast amounts to offer, some of which is sorely overlooked. Streaming’s Hidden Treasures aims to pick out quality, different and lesser-known cinema from across the internet, offering a guide to a variety of entertainment with ease and affordability.

Director: Michael Showalter

Starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher

Streaming Service: Amazon Prime

As we enter into week four of lockdown, you might feel like you’re starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel in search of a good cinematic distraction. Luckily, we’ve vetted out a few of those more obscure options for you. If you’re after something light and funny, but with a bit of meat to it, look no further than The Big Sick, available now on Amazon Prime.

One of the highest-grossing independent films of 2017, The Big Sick was written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon and is based on the true story of how the pair met and fell in love. Comedian Nanjiani plays himself in the film, with Zoe Kazan drafted in to play Emily. 

First and foremost, it’s a rom-com, and in many ways it stays true to that pretty unyielding formula; we get the meet-cute, the blossoming romance, the break-up, the reunion, and (maybe) the happily ever after, with, of course, lots of laughs peppered throughout. However, The Big Sickdoesn’t just trot along this well-worn path and allow it to wring the story dry. Quite the opposite, one of the film’s greatest strengths is what it does within those parameters. 

Quite often in a rom-com, the ‘break-up’ of the key couple is due to some stupid misunderstanding, or one of the two messes up – the problem usually involves attributing blame to someone. The Big Sickchanges this up in a really interesting and thought-provoking way; it manages to use the classic rom-com ‘problem’ as a way of initiating a comprehensive commentary on the current and very real issue of intercultural relationships and arranged marriages. It does so sensitively and without allowing blame to settle for more than a moment. It does an excellent job of helping us to see a situation from a perspective that we may well vehemently disagree with, without immediately denouncing it. 

We watch Kumail’s family life through his eyes and begin to understand the complexities of being part of a culture that he doesn’t feel fully submerged in. Kumail is a westernised Pakistani who was brought up in America, but asked by his family to stay true to their culture. We see his palpable confusion, his inability to comprehend his parents’ wishes to ignore all things western, to consider a relationship with no one but a Pakistani girl, and yet live and work and exist in America, where there are so few Pakistanis to meet, so few that are compatible with his family’s culture.

Most importantly, we see a close-knit household that values family above all else – except, perhaps, their religion. The Big Sickhelps us to understand the fierce, indisputable love between parent and child, for whom many sacrifices have been made, but at the same time, the terrible pain of what they see as disloyalty, and the perceived obligation to disown a family member who betrays them by refusing to marry within their own religion and culture. The Big Sickultimately explores the struggle between saving family relationships and saving a romantic relationship, and trying to find compatibility between them. 

Aside from this, The Big Sickalso differs wildly from your average rom-com in another way: one half of the key couple is rendered unconscious for most of the film. Emily is suddenly taken ill and ends up being put into an induced coma fairly early on, and a lot of the film focuses on the odd trio that is Emily’s parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) and Kumail, agonising over Emily in the hospital. So we don’t just see a blossoming romance between Emily and Kumail; that’s dealt with early on in the film. We also see, perhaps more importantly and more beautifully, a relationship develop between Kumail and Emily’s parents, who are, to begin with, wary of Kumail. We see the break down of prejudices between cultures, the acceptance and understanding of differences, and a real foundation of trust and companionship develop between them.

So The Big Sicksays some really important things and gives some nuanced insights into complex relationships – but it’s also really funny. The attention given to these issues never overshadows the genuinely enjoyable comedy. Kumail is actually a comedian by trade and the film often takes us into his live gig venues, helping to colour the film with the light-hearted sense of togetherness that so often emanates from, and is associated with, stand-up gigs. But the majority of the humour doesn’t come from this; the film never relies on clips of comedy sets to get laughs, nor does Kumail himself, as a comedian, overtly tryto get laughs offstage. Instead, the humour lies in the everyday challenges, in the unfathomability of how to unite the two sides of Kumail’s life, in the sincere yet comical conversations he has with his family, and in the blundering exchanges between Emily’s parents and Kumail.

All the beloved elements of the rom-com are still there in The Big Sick, they’re just fortified with a sense of reality that so often escapes this kind of genre film. 

There is something really authentic about it, and not just because it’s based on a true story. The subjects and relationships it deals with so eloquently are deep-rooted, real issues, and we are invited to understand rather than judge them. It’s refreshing to see the rom-com changed up in this way, focusing on so many other complex relationships without diminishing the central romantic one. 

Indeed, the believability of the romance is impressive in itself, since one of the lovers is literally in a coma for most of the film. So, next time you’re craving a rom-com, try the one where the love interest is unconscious for the most part – you’ll love it.

Jodie Sheehan