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Review: Donkeyhead

March 11, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Written, directed, produced by and starring actress Agam Darshi, Donkeyhead is a Canadian dramedy that centres around a South Asian family and explores the tensions between four adult siblings dealing with their father’s impending death.

Mona Ghuman (Darshi) is a failed novelist in her mid-thirties, plagued by self-doubt and terminal procrastination. Part of this is born out of resentment for the fact that she has stayed behind in her childhood home in Regina, Saskatchewan to care for her Sikh father (Marvin Ishmael), who is dying of cancer.

Despite the fact that she has devoted the last seven years of her life to caring for him, he is a traditionally patriarchal man has always viewed her as the least accomplished of his children, and makes no secret of it. She was always seen as the khota (a Punjabi insult for children literally meaning donkey) of the family.

When his condition worsens after suffering a stroke and he slips into a coma, Mona’s siblings come to say their goodbyes. There’s married brother Rup (Husein Madhavji), perfect sister Sandy (Sandy Sidhu), and Mona’s twin brother Parm (Stephen Lobo), a doctor who embraces his Sikh heritage and wears a turban, but struggles with a sense of guilt over letting the family down for not getting married. They all bring with them their own baggage, and disagree over how to care for their father, who has signed a DNR order, in his final days.

Sandy thinks that he should be in the hospital, Mona wants him at home. A reading of his will only exacerbates pre-existing tensions, and resurfaces old resentments between them that have never been properly resolved. Darshi, in her feature directorial debut, does a good job capturing the specifics of this Punjabi family, showing the messiness of adult sibling relationships. Regardless of cultural background, it’s easy to imagine pretty much any viewer finding something to relate to within the familial dynamics and things that the characters are going through.

The one area where Darshi’s screenplay holds back slightly is in detailing Mona’s internal struggles, which remain slightly vague. In particular, the suggestion that her character has deeper mental health issues feels somewhat underdeveloped when it is alluded to partway through the film. Still, while the story of Donkeyhead largely follows the expected beats, the film’s predictable moments and more clichéd plot points involving infidelity aren’t a detriment to its effectiveness.

At heart, Donkeyhead works as a story about caring for someone who never treated you well, with the strongest through-line being Mona’s struggle to grieve the loss of her father, while also coming to terms with the ways in which he abused and neglected her over the years. It’s in the moments showing Mona grappling with feelings of not being good enough as a daughter, yet still trying to please the person who made her feel this way, that the film is at its strongest. It’s an emotional arc that Darshi handles well, both in terms of her very good performance and nimble direction.

Donkeyhead is now playing in select theatres across Canada. It’s being distributed in Canada by levelFILM.

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