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Christy (dir. Alvin Henry, 2023)

Last updated on November 7, 2023

Alvin Henry’s Christy literally drops us in the ocean in its opening frames, onto a small boat where some men are fishing, and Roy (Mathew Thomas), nursing a hangover, is sick to his stomach with each wave that knocks them about.  The song that plays in this moment invites us to visit Poovar, a tourist town right at the southern tip of Kerala, planting us firmly in this place, following Roy as he sets off with his friends to perform at a festival, where the MC mistakes the name they’ve created for themselves – Poovar Boys – and calls them Poor Boys instead. 

Roy is a typical teenager, then, hanging out with his friends, sleeping late, and not doing particularly well at school, even though his parents have sent him to live with his aunt, hoping that he can keep her company, and keep himself on track.  And it’s this that Christy gets exactly, right, capturing this slice of their lives, when they’re young enough to have time to be carefree.

Roy, however, is not only not doing well at school; sometimes he’s not even going, bunking off to hang out with his friends instead.  His mother arrives to read him the riot act:  she wants Roy to return home.  His aunt intervenes, pointing out that there’s only two months left of school, and she has arranged tuition for Roy, with the daughter of someone else in the community, someone his aunt says is smart and will help Roy improve his grades.  Roy’s mother relents, and Roy sets out to meet his tutor, only to leave because he comes upon her tearing up pictures.  This is Christy (Malavika Mohanan), of the film’s title, and she’s going through a divorce, and doesn’t realize he’s there as she destroys the evidence of her marriage.

Roy insists the tutoring won’t work, because, as he tells his aunt, Christy has issues.  But his aunt won’t listen, telling him either to go to tutoring, or she’ll send him home, and let his father deal with him.  Roy meets Christy a second time after mass, where she sets him straight on her situation and insists he come for tuition.  I actually like Christy in the early part of the film.  She’s no nonsense, she’s smart, and she’s the one providing for her family, working as a teacher, and applying to teach in the Maldives so she can earn better money.  Her family isn’t happy about her divorce, but she obviously is, bringing home “divorce laddoos” to share with them.  When her father grumbles that he paid for her wedding and now she can’t spare money for him, she points out she didn’t want the marriage, she wanted to study and work.

Their first tutoring session finds Christy perplexed to discover Roy has notes for all of his subjects in one small notebook.  Christy soon sets Roy on the right track with his studies, and between her teaching and his efforts, he manages to pass, though the early going isn’t easy, with Roy often nodding off when Christy teaches him things like geopolitics, because he’s tired after accompanying the dance group in the evenings.

It’s this portion of the the film I actually really like, with Christy and Roy forming a lovely friendship, where she seems almost like an older sister to him.  This is underlined, for example, when Christy goes with Roy to visit his parents, where she seems to fit right in as they putter in the kitchen cooking.  As things progress, however, we soon realize that Roy is developing a crush on Christy.  Now, this is not surprising to me – Roy is at a transition stage between teenager finishing school and preparing to go to college, and young man ready to form important relationships.  At first, when his friends tease him, he just says that Christy is his tutor, but we come to understand that Roy sees Christy as more than that.

Roy becomes important in Christy’s life, too.  She does see him as a friend, and he helps her in his own way, fixing her bicycle for her, accompanying her to the bank.  She goes with him to visit his parents.  In many ways, it feels like Roy becomes a friend, or even as a kind of younger brother figure that she helps tutor, and through that gives him some structure in a life that’s spent mostly just hanging out with friends.

It’s clear that while Christy sees Roy as a friend, she is unaware of the growing feelings he has for her.  Roy knows that it’s quite possible that she only sees him as a brother, and one of his friends encourages him to tell her so that he’ll know for sure.  There is irony in the film:  in one of his college classes, a teacher discusses the importance of communication, whether in business, or in relationships, and Roy hesitates to communicate his feelings.  But communication – or more particularly, the lack of communication – is what leads to the problems in the film’s second half.  At no time does Christy communicate to Roy how she feels about Roy’s interest in her.  She is shocked, it seems, to discover how, well, obsessive his feelings for her are, to the point of him even trying to give up everything and travel to the Maldives to be with her.  It’s left to her colleague, travelling with her, to tell Roy he shouldn’t be there.  I found this quite troubling.  It’s understandable that Roy would develop a crush on Christy, it’s almost a teenage right of passage for some.  But it’s unconscionable that Christy does nothing to discourage him, and it makes no sense to me that a smart woman like Christy, who knows what she wants, and who divorces when the marriage she’s in makes no sense to her, who takes the decision to go and work in the Maldives even when her family has misgivings about it – it makes no sense that she suddenly cannot tell Roy that his behaviour is unwanted and inappropriate.  Christy tells Roy that “this friendship is my only respite”, a phrase that should underline she sees Roy as a friend only, but it also gives emotional weight to their relationship, which Roy could, and does, misunderstand.  Christy  also uses Roy precisely because she needs a friend — she needs someone on her side.  She also clearly doesn’t consider Roy when she begins making plans to go and teach in the Maldives, though she does ask him to come along with her and her father when she goes to the interview, because if Roy doesn’t come, it would just be boring to be with her father, who is unsupportive of this move.

Roy realizes the impact of Christy leaving to teach in the Maldives, and it’s this that finally prompts him to speak to her about his feelings.  When he tells her he likes her, she responds by saying she likes him, too, clearly still leaning into the friendship.  Roy insists, though, that he doesn’t like her “like that”, that he wants to marry her.  We don’t see any of the impact of this moment because everyone, including Christy’s father comes back onto the bus (it has stopped for tea/rest break, coming back from the interview), but immediately we see Roy lying on the seashore, talking to his friend, and we learn that Roy firmly believes that Christy feels the same way, and that these feelings will remain even if she moves to the Maldives.

It’s at this point, really that the wheels start to fall off the film for me.  I found it completely baffling that Christy did nothing to address Roy’s confession of marriage to her, that she just keeps acting as if they are friends, she calls him, she connects with him on Facebook.  It starts to give her a desperate air, as if she is incapable of having any other friend than Roy, and despite how smart and sharp she seems in the early part of the film, it is incomprehensible – and in fact, reprehensible – that she doesn’t make things clear with Roy, instead encouraging him to indulge in this fantasty of a relationship with her.

When she returns to Poovar to surprise Roy for his birthday, things just go from bad to worse.  Roy requests a kiss for a birthday gift; Christy looks troubled.  Roy tries to kiss Christy anyway, without her consent, and Christy?  Looks troubled.  Why this character, who previously seemed so in control of her life and sure about her choices, suddenly is unable to communicate to Roy that she finds his actions inappropriate is beyond my comprehension.  I understand that what the film is trying to set up is that Roy believes in this grand passion he has for Christy, to the point where he will do anything, but Christy’s constant silence is incredibly troubling and disconcerting.  There is, admittedly, one moment where Christy tells Roy she will not be returning to Kerala for several years, noting she needs to mind her business, but she isn’t clearly telling Roy that he needs to move on from her as well.  It’s left to her colleague to point out to Roy that his actions are inappropriate, and even then he doesn’t listen, begging everyone – airline staff, immigration staff, both in Kerala and in the Maldives – to just let him go to Christy.  This isn’t some kind of grand love.  This is illusion and obsession, and it’s unconscionable that Christy allows things to go this far. 

The director has said this is a story based on his own life and experience, and I hestitated to write about the film because it felt hurtful to comment on someone’s personal life, especially if he perceives this as an important and formative moment.  But there’s something just so troubling in how this film has been written (and again, I am baffled how writers of the calibre of Benyamin and G.R. Indugopan failed to pull this story together properly), and how these characters have been portrayed, that I need to talk about it, and hope the director will understand how I’m perceiving this story as a viewer.

On the one hand, I can – as I have said – fully understand how a young and impressionable teenager like Roy could develop a crush on the older Christy, and I think it was a good choice to have Mathew Thomas (who was excellent as the vulnerable Franky in Kumbalangi Nights) play this young and vulnerable teen on the cusp of adulthood.  Someone like Roy would absolutely believe that this first love is the grandest moment of his life, and would absolutely get caught up in his emotions.  But I find it perplexing and troubling that almost all the adults around Roy encourage him.  When he tells the local priest his plan to join Christy in the Maldives, the priest’s response is not to question Roy’s actions, but to encourage him, telling him that at his young age, going so far for love, only good will come to him.  Roy pleads and wheedles his way onto a flight to the Maldives, with airport and immigration officers in both Kerala and the Maldives ignoring proper procedure to allow Roy to make his grand gesture.  Even the employee in the Maldives who rebooks Roy’s flight back to Kerala tells him that Roy truly knows what love is.  This is not what Roy needs in this moment:  he needs an adult to guide him, he needs Christy to tell him when he is crossing lines with her so he can learn appropriate behaviour with someone he believes he loves, he needs the adults in his life to help him understand the difference between love and infatuation.

Despite all of this, there are many things I really like about Christy.  Govind Vasantha’s music is pretty, and Anend C. Chandran’s cinematography is fresh and lovely.  Christy excels at the small details, especially the slice of life of Roy and his friends in Poovar – like going to receive communion, and asking the priest to give them  a second spoonful of sacramental wine.  I loved the first half of the film so much, feeling as if I knew these characters and their village.  The film truly does invite us in to Poovar and the lives of these characters, and that’s what I’ll hang on to, those lovely moments of watching someone like Roy take his first, awkward steps into adult life.

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