TIFF Review: 'Sweetness in the Belly' Is a Timely Representation of the Refugee Experience

Directed by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari

Starring Dakota Fanning, Wunmi Mosaku, Kunal Nayyar, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

BY Allie GregoryPublished Sep 8, 2019

Lily Adbal (Dakota Fanning) is a devout English Muslim woman living in Harar, Ethiopia after being raised by a Sufi teacher who took her in as an orphan. In Harar, Lily lives with Nouria and her children. When Nouria's daughter is inflicted with female genital mutilation, Lily goes with her to the hospital where she meets a kind doctor named Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).
Aziz and Lily quickly develop a romantic relationship, but before it has time to progress, the country erupts in civil war. Aziz tells Lily to leave Ethiopia, and she does — only to find herself encamped at a refugee detainment centre in England. Lily starts a life in England and befriends another refugee woman, Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), and her family, but never stops searching for Aziz.
Lily struggles to adapt to her new English life, preferring to sleep on the couch in her apartment, and finding it difficult to get a job in nursing. Initially, the refugees in her complex are hesitant to befriend her, seeing her white skin as untrustworthy, but grow to love her as family over time.
In her search for Aziz, Lily unearths the true horrors of the Ethiopian civil war and begins to lose hope in ever reconnecting with him or being at peace alone in her new home. After a traumatic episode with Amina, Lily sees herself for the first time as a white woman with different advantages over her African counterparts. This revelation is, however, under-tapped by the screenplay and Fanning's flatline delivery.
Sweetness in the Belly (based on the novel of the same name by Camilla Gibb) centres mostly on Lily's unusual identity and faith, but to the detriment of the more compelling tangential narratives. The underlying stories of Aziz's time as a rebel in the civil war and of Amina and her children are far more compelling, but act merely as a backdrop to Lily's self-imposed stoicism. Lily's struggle falls flat in comparison, and with no prominent redemption plot, her character comes off as clueless and self-interested.
However, these shortcomings are redeemed partly by Mosaku's and Adbul-Mateen's incredible performances, assisted by Kunal Nayyar's humorous portrayal of the English doctor who attempts to woo Lily.
While Sweetness in the Belly could have delved deeper into more dynamic plotlines, it remains a gorgeously shot romance tale and an eye-opening and timely representation of the refugee experience.

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