Anyone who has seen uplifting Oscar nominee Lion or agonising arthouse drama Siddharth will know that finding a missing person in India is extremely difficult. When your teenage daughter is the one to go MIA, it is terrifying. When your irritated ex is the only person in your search party, it doesn’t help. Throw in a herd of unhelpful white potheads who treat India like a music-less Coachella and you have a film that’s ripe for exploring cultural ignorance – putting focus on a middle class Kiwi couple gives Beyond the Known World a bit more distinction.
Sia Trokenheim, who broke hearts and won a New Zealand Film Award for Everything We Loved, gives a sturdy performance as Julie, balancing the distress of a worried parent with the determination of a mother on a mission. Former husband Carl, played by the ever-reliable David Wenham (Lion), shares Julie’s determination but not her sensitivity. He’ll throw money at locals’ faces if it means getting a little closer to finding his daughter.
Julie is familiar with the culture but Carl is not, and it’s satisfying to see him come to grips with his own ignorance, though the same can’t quite be said for their relationship. Something clearly went wrong in their marriage, but the film barely gives you a taste of the ‘what’ or the ‘why’ until a small block of dialogue drops it all at once, leading to a bedroom scene that feels more bizarre than insightful.
On the upside, it does keep you wondering if the daughter was taken or if she simply cut ties with her parents (communication is not this family’s strong point). The longer the film goes on, the more understandable the situation becomes. Director Pan Nalin (Samsara) never lets you forget how much natural beauty lies in India and NZ writer Dianne Taylor (Apron Strings) has provided a solid dangling carrot to guide audiences through it. The journey is often bumpy, but the conclusion has just the right amount of grace to stick the landing.