Based on the actual story of writer/director Ann Hu (Shadow Magic), Confetti centers on a Chinese mother named Lan (Zhu Zhu), who discovers that her 9-year-old daughter Meimei (Harmonie He) is dyslexic and decides she will do anything to make certain she does not end up uneducated and “a waste” like Lan sees herself. Lan and her tailor husband Chen (Li Yanan) live in a small town in China where the schools are good as long as you don’t display any learning disabilities. Much like her mother, Meimei has been unable to learn to read or write in Chinese because of her dyslexia, but that hasn’t stopped her from developing incredibly sharp spatial recognition and memory skills that make it easy for her to, for example, learn English from the school’s American English teacher Thomas (George Christophe), who sees the girl’s potential and attempts to help the family find her a school somewhere nearby that is more suited to teach Meimei.
Being from New York, naturally Thomas knows of schools there that might be able to help, leading Lan to make the difficult decision to take her daughter to New York, where she will work as a housecleaner (as she does in China) and take other jobs to cover the cost of a special school. Her husband is naturally weary and thinks she’s leaving him for good, but he also knows Lan’s secret about being illiterate and is convinced this is Meimei’s only chance. Thomas sets them up with Helen (Amy Irving), a writer friend of his who is in a wheelchair and needs help around the house. She’s gracious but also feels misled by Thomas learning that Lan speaks almost no English, leaving Meimei as the only version of a translator in the house. Helen begins the process of having them placed somewhere else through an agency, but just then she starts to feel attached to them and offers to help them get into a very expensive school that will be able to give the girl the attention she needs.
Confetti does a terrific job capturing both the visual experience of having dyslexia and explaining how it manifests, how it can be dealt with, and sometimes overcome to a degree. But it also beautifully shows us the overwhelming experience of being in a foreign country where you know no one and can’t speak the language. Lan is sometimes so flooded with emotions about her own education, her inability to help her daughter, and how much everything in America costs that this journey is far more devastating than one might imagine.
But the film is also about the extremely intelligent Meimei being seen for who she actually is for the first time in her life. She’s mocked and criticized by teachers and fellow students alike in China, because they think she’s defective and dumb, when quite the opposite is true. In America, the issue is more about status. Being a poor immigrant isn’t the best place to start from when it comes to trying to nail down a spot at a prestigious special school. Helen Slater plays Dr. Wurmer, the head of the school in question, and as much as she wants to help, she must adhere to the rules and deadlines her institution has established. Very often, Lan’s struggles are not with people but with tradition and inflexible rules, which make things all the more infuriating and hopeless.
Harmonie He’s performance as Meimei is astonishing, especially for such a young actor. She’s required to exude shyness, smarts, confusion and dismay, sometimes within one scene, and it’s easy to understand why people would want to lend help to a girl so eager to learn and overcome. There are times when Confetti feels a bit too much like it needs to educate the audience on the plight of the dyslexic, but considering that something like 1-in-10 people have some form of it, I don’t think there are a lot of people in the world who don’t know what it is to some degree. But since this particular story belongs to the filmmaker, it’s easy to feel her passion for the material and how intricately these life experiences have worked their way into her art. An opportunity to see such a work on true intimacy should not be missed, even with a few minor shortcomings in the writing.
The film is open theatrically at the AMC River East.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!