This post contains spoilers for the entirety of The Big Sick.
Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick is one of the year’s most satisfying romantic comedies—but it’s something else, too. Written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon about their rocky real-life courtship, the film is a remarkable achievement for the depth of its unusual B-plot: the fictional Kumail’s relationship with his future in-laws (played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). It’s a singularly textured and honest portrayal, especially within Asian American pop culture, of the importance of parents in adulthood—as well as a candid look at the need to negotiate familial relationships when they become too dysfunctional.
A pharmaceutical lab’s worth of chemistry binds Nanjiani (who plays himself) and Zoe Kazan (who plays Emily), giving the first act its easygoing sweetness. But The Big Sick truly distinguishes itself when Kumail meets Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry, about 45 minutes in. After five months of dating, Emily discovers in her boyfriend’s room a yearbook page’s worth of photos: headshots of women that Kumail’s mother had introduced to her younger son in hopes of arranging a marriage. Seeing no future for them as a couple, Emily breaks things off. Shortly after, she lands in the hospital, where she’s placed in a medically induced coma. Reeling from the sudden severity of their daughter’s condition (and fully aware of Kumail’s photo collection), Beth and Terry initially swat their daughter’s ex away like a fly.
It’s unusual enough for a film’s stakes to center on a guy’s relationship with his (ex-) girlfriend’s parents. In part because of the novelty of that premise, and in part because it’s executed so well, The Big Sick ends up being as much about Kumail’s incredibly intimate relationship with Beth and Terry as it does about his devoted romance with Emily. After being burned by the heat of Terry and (especially) Beth’s hostility, Kumail gets to know them as a couple and as individuals. A drunk Beth confides in Kumail about how no one in her family liked Terry at first. Worn out by the rollercoaster-like updates on his daughter’s medical status, Terry shares more than he perhaps should—that he cheated on Beth awhile ago and she hasn’t fully forgiven him for it. It’s the stuff movies are made of: A couple of strangers come into your life and a whole new world opens up that you didn’t even know existed.
With Emily lying in a coma, Beth and Terry are the only people in Kumail’s life who remotely understand what he is going through. (His juvenile friends at the comedy club provide little emotional support.) But the greatest comfort the older couple provides to Kumail is parental. Unlike his family, they’re willing to check out his standup (if only to distract themselves from their anxiety). And in contrast to his law-school-obsessed mother, they care little for status (they’re willing to overlook his shabby apartment and dingy air mattress).
That’s not to say that they’re perfect: Beth has anger issues (witness the instantly iconic scene where Hunter circles Romano like she’s stalking prey) and Terry at one point awkwardly asks Kumail his “stance” on 9/11 (in a scene that’s sure to be quoted for years to come for Nanjiani and Gordon’s flipping of the script on Islamophobia). But in this time of crisis, Kumail gets the attention and love from Beth and Terry that he needs. When Emily later wakes up, Beth plays an instrumental role in nudging the young couple together—so much so that it’s altogether possible that Kumail and Emily would never have ended up together if it weren’t for the older woman’s encouragement.
Kumail’s parents also occupy a crucial role in his romantic and emotional journey, though in a markedly different way. Played by Zenobia Shroff and Anupam Kher, the elder Nanjianis demonstrate at the movie’s outset that they’re more than willing to cut out of the family any relative who marries a non-Pakistani, non-Muslim partner. While the pair isn’t as well developed as Beth and Terry are, it’s poignant all the same to watch the comedian discover he can and should relate to his parents in new ways as he grows into a more well-rounded person.
It takes awhile—Kumail is used to dealing with his parents by being strategically passive and by conveniently compartmentalizing his life. He lets them believe that he’ll eventually marry the “right” kind of girl and take the LSAT because it’s easier than correcting them, and thus exudes a filial melancholy for most of the film that he sees as natural and inevitable. But Kumail finds that his methods of engagement (which will be familiar to many Asian American viewers) are unsustainable, and ultimately hurtful to everyone he loves. When his parents learn about Emily, they react—as she did in reaction to those headshots—as if they’re looking at a stranger.
A script less concerned with cultural realism and more insistent on Hollywood happy endings might have resolved with Kumail’s mother and father accepting Emily’s race and religion for the sake of their son’s contentment. To its credit, The Big Sick leaves the relationship between Kumail and his parents an open wound: The comedian moves to New York to pursue comedy without their blessing. “That’s a whole other story,” the non-resolution implies—the very lack of conclusion a kind of deference toward the intricacy of the situation.
Parents play a significant role in Desi-American romances like Master of None and The Mindy Project (as well as other recent works, from the documentary Meet the Patels to the standup special Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King). In those stories, their Indian- and Pakistani-American authors make a point of demystifying arranged marriage, even if none of their protagonists choose it for themselves. The Big Sick is no exception. “You know what they call arranged marriage in Pakistan?” Kumail asks Emily during a fight, deflecting from the fact that he’s been lying by omission to her for months. “Marriage!” Still, he can’t envision an arranged marriage for himself because he himself has stereotyped his parents’ relationship for years as utterly lacking in romance. While getting to know Kumail, Beth asks him what movie his parents saw on their first date (a set-up), and he admits he’s never asked them. In The Big Sick’s penultimate scene, Kumail finally asks his father, and the older man names a musical, then smiles as he hums a melody from one of its songs—his wife’s favorite.
Within the scope of the film, it’s a small development, but it indicates that Kumail’s own eyes are being opened: about what an arranged marriage could be, and about how tender his parents’ relationship has been. And while there’s something off-puttingly impersonal about Kumail’s headshot collection (reminiscent of an analog Tinder), the film leaves open the possibility that he might have ended up clicking with one of the women his mom picked for him—the nerdy-cool magician Khadija (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Vella Lovell)—had he been just a little bit more open to the idea. That’s the case even if Khadija doesn’t care for Kumail’s favorite show, The X-Files. Emily, for that matter, doesn’t seem all that impressed by his preferred horror movies, either.
The resourcefulness with which the film shows Kumail creating a route forward for himself—not simply following the American norms he grew up with or the Pakistani traditions his parents want him to embrace, but forging a third way based on his own romantic, emotional, and professional needs—is notable. And that’s why, for this Asian American viewer, at least, The Big Sick feels so substantial: It’s sensitive to culture while illustrating why it sometimes has to change, if only within a family.
The Big Sick makes room for the role of parents in one’s romantic life and affirms the importance of their approval and encouragement. The twist is that it’s Emily’s parents who serve as a real-life model of marriage and caretaking after Kumail has hidden too much of his life from his own mother and father to ask for support and advice. That a white couple plays that role for Kumail—including coaxing their daughter to reunite with her ex—is a reminder that the cultural gaps the film highlights aren’t so wide after all: Despite undeniable differences, forging bridges is possible. The Big Sick thus offers new ways of envisioning parental relationships—especially those that many Asian Americans navigate—in all their relatably messy, adaptive glory.