Is there a new cliche in town about the Indian father passing away to make way for an “overbearing” mother and a child with a complicated journey? We saw Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever go through the exact same thing, not to mention that both Devi of NHIE and Prem of World’s Best had visions of their fathers to guide them on their chosen path. The similarity is very close to being a rip-off. The entire film is soaked in Americans’ stereotypes of Indians, and we would rather ignore them than ruin our mood with their lack of imagination. Yet, when it is a given that we will tune into the film expecting nothing different, why didn’t we get to see a more gracefully written Priya, Punam Patel’s character, like we saw Poorna Jagannathan’s Nalini in NHIE? If you want to copy things, don’t leave out the best parts. Priya wasn’t bad, but we didn’t really understand her character. We get that she was competitive and pushed her son to be as well, but the way in which it connected to her husband was a little sketchy. She could have simply been competitive in her own right, as most Asian parents are in their misguided attempts to want the best for their children. We also did not understand why she would lie about Suresh. It is not as if she did not have other good memories of him to share with Prem. These two very defining moments of the film World’s Best lacked important links of reasoning.
As for the rest of the movie, it was a lot of rap (good ones) with very little story. The actors playing the Patel family had great chemistry, and it would have been nice to have some scenes of them all together, even imaginary ones. But coming to the central conflict of World’s Best, it is the high school curse of being cool, which is often a manufactured fantasy. Curse the 80s, the 90s, or whatever decade it was that popularized the idea that being cool meant dressing and talking a certain way, and if you are a “nerd,” you are the comedic relief or a side character in the protagonists’ journey of coolness. It feels like everything we have been watching in the last few years has been centered around dismantling this idea, and as a slightly older millennial, we are really outgrowing the entire trope altogether.
We brought this up because World’s Best is about Prem trying to bury his love for math, the uncool hobby, in favor of rapping, the skill that would get him into the cool clubs. His journey was a lesson in how he can like both, and being so multifaceted is the actual coolness of a person. Sorry if we sounded like corny teenagers, but Prem is only 12 years old, and we are allowed to speak this language.
Something we encounter through Prem’s journey is his struggle to keep the right point of view. The so-called “coolness” is more often than not enforced as a hierarchy, and by striving for acceptance, Prem was reinforcing it rather than trying to dismantle it. When he imagines himself rapping through the cafeteria, he relies on some outdated misogynistic digs as his way of gaining instant power over his bullies, not realizing that he is turning into a bully himself by doing that. Prem hated the way his ex-best friend treated him in the interest of being with his new friends, but when Claire stood up for him, Prem was mean to her because his bullies were not afraid of her, and she was yet another target for them. Claire was also someone “uncool,” and Prem did not want to be associated with her, forgetting that she had shown more character than the other people around him.
This uncomfortable aspect is a very small part of Prem’s journey. Honestly, we saw very little of his journey and a bit too much of his rap. Which brings us to the point that in any musical, the songs are used to further the narrative of the story, either by becoming a part of the plot or by representing the dilemma of the characters. We felt that happen the first time the father-son duo broke out into a rap in their imaginary world, but from thereon, they had a separate place from the rest of the story. It was really odd that for all of Prem’s imagination, not once did he perform in front of a crowd or even in front of his friends. This was a serious misstep by the writers. There was the hint of a beautiful idea of combining Prem’s love for mathematics with his newfound skills at rapping and using them to explain complex formulas to students. In fact, that should have been the story of the movie: that he used this combination to get his team to win the mathlympics. But it was simply represented as a figment of his imagination in the end, rather than a real storyline.
Honestly, we don’t think that the writers knew what they had to do or where they were going with the story. The movie lacked a clear sense of direction, and as much as we enjoyed the music, we found it a struggle to sit through the 100-minute narrative.
World’s Best is one of those examples where it is not hard to make a good movie, but things go wrong due to incoherent ideas of grandeur. Prem’s story got it right with the musical aspect, but when it came to the story itself, it couldn’t find a proper structure. We believe that in cases like this, it is alright to fall back on cliches as long as the execution is kept interesting. World’s Best failed to create a successful marriage between these two aspects of the film.
On a final note, the only standout was the cast, particularly Utkarsh Ambudkar, but his energy and commitment were not enough to salvage a weak story. A special note of appreciation for Jake Choi making us wish we had teachers like him to hold our attention in the classroom. There was scope for Punam Patel to be more, but she wasn’t given that chance. The same can be said for Prem, played by Manny Magnus. We are yet to make up our minds about him, and his future projects will hopefully allow us to have a positive opinion. Until then, we really wish that World’s Best had done better with itself. It has made itself impossible to recommend it to others.