‘Foreign Letters’ is sweet tale of young friendship

Noa Rotstein and Dalena Le star in ‘Foreign Letters.’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

“Foreign Letters,” the film selected for the 2012 Jewish Family Film Festival, is a charming tale of friendship about an Israeli girl living in America in 1982. It is the kind of film that truly can be enjoyed by both parents and children, particularly mothers and daughters, who will recognize that common experience of intense pre-teen friendship and friendship over time.

Newly arrived in the United States and homesick, Ellie writes letters to her “best friend times infinity” back in Israel, sharing her 12-year-old’s concerns about life and her family’s adjustment to their new country. Her father likes the new country because everyone minds his own business but her mother does not because no one is outside on his suburban street. Her frugal mother is also amazed there is so much free stuff, and collects multiple plastic bags at the grocery, ketchup packets from restaurants and checks out discarded items, left out for trash pick-up, in the hopes of finding anything useful.

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Ellie and her friend back in Israel are close, and write each other endlessly about their favorite musicians and what is happening in their lives. But there is no substitute for friends close at hand. At school, Ellie struggles with learning English and feels excluded until she befriends another immigrant, a quiet, bookish Vietnamese girl named Thuy.   

So much in this sweet tale rings true about friendships for girls of this age – the intensity, the secrets and the changeability. “Foreign Letters” captures it perfectly, bringing back memories of the age, but also giving us insight on the immigrant experience and the struggles of just wanting to fit in. But the real focus is on friendship, its ups and downs, along with its bitter and sweet sides.

That feeling of truth likely comes from the fact that the film was inspired by the director’s own experiences. Despite their families’ different backgrounds, war connects the immigrant stories. Ellie’s family left because of Israel’s war with Lebanon while Thuy’s family fled the Vietnam War. The girls themselves are different yet alike. Sweet-faced, outgoing Ellie is always asking questions while Thuy is reserved and always reading. Ellie has a younger brother, while Thuy is the oldest in a family with many younger brothers and sisters.

Ela Thier wrote and directed the film, and also appears in it as Ellie’s mother. The two young actresses do a wonderful job in capturing the girls’ budding friendship and their different personalities. Noa Rotstein plays Ellie and Dalena Le plays Thuy; both are appealing and talented.

Ellie tells Thuy of her infatuations with this boy or that one, while Thuy, who has been in America for several years, helps Ellie with her English and gives her insights on American culture. They do typical pre-teen things, like sharing secrets, going ice-skating to flirt with boys, making prank calls about running refrigerators, and passing coded notes in school. Thuy is more serious and down-to-earth, fixed on going to a good college, and embarrassed by her family’s crowded apartment. Ellie is bubbly and outgoing, encouraging Thuy to loosen up and play.

The photography is lovely as well, particularly as the girls walk through woods near school in several scenes. The film is further enhanced by a score from famous Israeli singer Chava Alberstein.

There are many humorous moments but touches of poignant drama as well. As often happens with friendships at this age, conflict arrives that gives Ellie new insights on life and true friendship.

The film is not without flaws. At times the plot meanders, but its underlying human honesty redeems it. A coda at the film’s end featuring the real people on which it is based is a testament to enduring friendship. Interestingly, the writer/director was a full-time student of Talmud and Jewish law in her twenties. A quote from the Talmud on the film’s website might best sum up the sentiment here: “Give me friendship or give me death.”