Foreign Letters is Israeli-American director Ela Thier’s autobiographical love letter to adolescence and the power of friendship in a foreign land. While there are some issues with the execution, Foreign letters is unquestionably one of the most sincere filmic efforts in recent years. More than that, it is one of the most promising I’ve seen all year.
Part of the film’s charm is its characters. While this may be true of many movies, Their has the distinct advantage of having lived the experience. Knowing her character, inside and out, breathes life into the most ordinary tasks. The film’s protagonist, appropriately named Ellie, is an unparalleled delight to watch as she finds her way in America. Primarily told through voice-over, alternating between her native tongue of Hebrew and her attempts at fractured English, Ellie paints a picture of what life must be like for the average young girl moving to such an unknown land as America. Rather than simply show the audience the differences in life, the absurdities of American life are captured in snippets from letters written to her friend back home. One of the most charming is early on in the film when Ellie and her mother are at the grocery store. As her mother reels off countless plastic produce bags, Ellie brags in her letter about how America has so many free things, like bags and artificial sweeteners. It’s these types of idiosyncrasies, ranging from the endearing to the insightful, that makes Foreign Letters such an impressive film.
Truly, it is a film with a voice. Thinking about it, that’s what makes the film so charming. Not only in terms of its specific characters of Ellie and Thuy, but in capturing that moment in adolescence. As the two girls wake together, Ellie confesses to her newfound friend that she loves John, a boy in their class. Moments later, she finds herself in love with another boy, Matthew. To the grown-up audience, it is clear that this isn’t “love” she’s talking about. It’s affection. She has a crush, but recalling that age, I remember that it did seem like every crush was the person that you were going to spend the rest of your life with. Somewhere along the way in our adult lives, something changes and we lose that kind of innocence. It’s a naïve feeling, a childish one even, but Thier captures it with such ease and such sweet perfection.
Furthermore, there’s a bizarre kind of poetry to the film. In one of Ellie’s letters to her friend back in Israel she writes about how she wishes she could cry and let the tears stain the paper so her friend could see how much she misses her. It sounds absurd, but as Ellie reads the words, it is heartbreakingly sincere. Unfortunately, one of the film’s few faults is that it sometimes gets caught up in its poetic voice. For instance, when there is a conflict between Ellie and Thuy, the film regresses to the “less is more” strategy of filmmaking. Few things are said about the conflict, but the emotion is felt. Nevertheless, the film could stand to say a few things about the fight. Since it is Thier’s own personal experience, she may know the cause of the fight but, as a viewer, I found myself left in the dark.
Still, the lack of explanation is only a minor issue in Foreign Letters because it is truly a film to be experienced. It’s not something that can be completely explained. It is something to be felt. That’s where Foreign Letters succeeds where so many other films have failed. Using Thier’s own personal experience and distinctive yet universal voice, she crafts a humble film about coming of age in America.