He was drawn to the dirt: 50 acres of rich, dark, Arkansas earth.
Jacob could plant his family there and find his patch of the American dream. He looked across the land—his land. He looked at the green field fenced by green trees, roofed by only blue and white.
This wasn’t Arkansas for Jacob. It was Eden: a parcel preserved before the Fall.
But for Monica, it was the fall. Their family’s fall from civilization, from sanity, from stability.
Jacob and Monica had lived in California before coming to Arkansas, in a community filled with Koreans, just like them. Their world was filled with shops and restaurants and schools and—most importantly—doctors and hospitals. David, their 5-year-old son, has a weak heart, one that almost certainly will require surgery if the boy is to have any hope at all. He could collapse at any minute. And from their new slice of Arkansas, the hospital is an hour away.
Monica looks not at the dirt, not at the land, but at their double-wide mobile home, still sitting on wheels as if it, too, was ready for a quick getaway.
“It just gets worse and worse,” Monica says as she tries, with help, to climb through the stepless, stoop-less front door. And as the family unpacks and daughter Anne asks where to put Grandma’s picture, Monica doesn’t need to think much.
“We’re not staying long,” she says. “Leave it in the box.”
With the battle lines drawn, the fighting begins. Jacob wants to be more than a chicken sexer all his life: He wants to be a farmer, with his family and livelihood both rooted in the earth. But to Monica, this plot of land feels less like roots and more like chains—chains that fetter her and the children, chains that rattle every time she looks at David and worries about his overworked heart.
And then, suddenly, a truce: They’ll stay—for a while—if Grandma stays, too. They’ll invite Monica’s Korean mother to America, to stay with the children while Jacob and Monica work—to keep them safe, to keep them sound.
But when Grandma arrives, little David isn’t so sure about the old lady. He’s never met her before, and he grumbles that she “smells like Korea.” She makes him drink terrible-tasting broth. She teaches him how to play cards and curses mildly as they play. And she can’t drink enough Mountain Dew.
“She isn’t really even like a real grandma,” he mumbles during a walk through the woods.
“You like grandma!” Grandma says, walking a few steps ahead. “Thank you!”
David looks at his grandmother a little like Monica looks at the land: new, strange and a little frightening. But perhaps, underneath, she’s like Jacob’s dirt, too: rich. Grounded. Home.
David knows what a grandmother should look like. “They bake cookies!” he protests. “They don’t swear! They don’t wear men’s underwear!” His grandma, meanwhile, does all of these things. (And we’ll talk about some of grandma’s less-than-ideal habits down the way.) But let’s also give Grandma some props here, too: She’s pretty great where it counts most.
Consider, for instance, what Minari never really tells us explicitly: When her daughter asks for her help, she willingly gives it—leaving behind her whole life in Korea. Sure, perhaps she was thrilled to come; but the transition to a strange, new land halfway around the globe can’t be easy on anyone.
Once in Arkansas, she throws herself into her new life with exuberance. When Monica tells her mother how ashamed she is of how they’re living now, Grandma says, “Because your house has wheels? It’s fun!” When her grandchildren (especially David) treat her with suspicion and rudeness, she rolls with it, mostly without rancor or punishment. Indeed, when David plays a really terrible trick on Grandma, she defends the kid when David’s dad is ready to give him a few licks with a stick.
And she plants a batch of minari—a Korean plant that grows almost anywhere and can be used in just about any dish—on a riverbank. It thrives there, and the plant serves as something of a metaphorical encouragement: Even far removed from its native soil, minari can grow and thrive.
Jacob and Monica’s relationship is terribly strained, but both still care deeply about one another. Anne, David’s sister, quietly and without fanfare, takes care of a lot of lingering problems that slip her parents’ attention, including encouraging and even caring for her little brother. We hear a lot of about the importance of family—both in a nuclear and extended sense—and the responsibility that family members have to care for one another.
And then there’s Paul, whom we’ll talk about in more in-depth below.
Paul, a local hand whom Jacob (somewhat reluctantly) hires, is a deeply religious man—as spiritually charismatic as anyone you’ll likely see on a secular screen. He performs both impromptu and more formulaic “exorcisms” in the field and the house. (He and others believe Jacob’s land may be cursed.) He prays frequently and loudly, and he often tries to cradle Jacob in a hug. He blesses Jacob and Monica’s home with dabs of holy water. And, most dramatically, he pulls a literal cross around the region’s dirt roads. “It’s Sunday,” he tells Jacob as he and his family offer him a ride. “This is my church. I gotta finish.” (It earns him the mockery of some kids who ride the bus to church.)
The movie acknowledges that Paul’s habits are unusual and, often, unsettling. (He can, in truth, feel a little unstable.) But he’s also a good man: a hard worker who labors shoulder-to-shoulder with Jacob and encourages him through some really difficult times.
Jacob is pretty weirded out by Paul at times. But he and his family are Christian, too; a tapestry of Jesus with a flock of sheep hangs in their living room. Monica is especially faithful. Worried about David’s eternal future, Monica encourages him to pray often—telling the little boy to pray to go to heaven. But after a while, David’s bothered by that: He wants to stick around earth for a little longer.
“I already asked to see it,” he tells his grandma, “But now, I don’t want to go.” He doesn’t want to go to hell, either, so his grandmother encourages him to pray for “no heaven” (at least not right now) and tells him he’ll be just fine.
Monica wishes there was a Korean church in town, to which one of her co-workers suggest some Koreans came to Oklahoma to escape “Korean church.” But Jacob sees that Monica could use some friends, and they all go to the local church one Sunday morning. The pastor greets them kindly, though the church members eye the Koreans as if they were zoo animals. Several introduce themselves in the following potluck supper, but Jacob’s still uncomfortable. Afterward, Monica suggests that maybe they could work on Sunday mornings, instead. (The children, though, seem to continue to attend.)
This isn’t precisely spiritual, but the practice of dowsing—finding water by holding a forked stick in your hands—is practiced.
David wets the bed on occasion, which causes Grandma to ask her daughter what the male sex organ is called in English. Monica says “penis,” but when Grandma tells David that his penis is broken, David corrects her terminology—saying it’s called a “ding-dong.” (Later, Grandma embarrasses David by telling one of his friends that David can’t stay overnight with him because of his “broken ding-dong.”)
Both Jacob and Monica work as chick sexers—that is, people who inspect chicks to see if they’re male or female. Jacob says he really doesn’t want to spend his whole life looking at “chicken butts.” Elsewhere, Jacob takes a bath, and we see him from the chest up as Monica washes his hair. Grandma reminisces about how Jacob and Monica would get “all lovey-dovey” singing a particular song together—memories that Jacob and Monica have long since forgotten.
Locals believe that Jacob’s land is cursed: The previous owner was ruined when he tried to start a farm there, and he ultimately killed himself. (One man, in explaining it to David, puts two fingers to the side of his own head, mimicking a gun being fired.)
David’s injured by a falling bureau drawer: His shin requires a bandage, and we see where a huge splinter was separated from the bureau. Jacob kicks a produce box in frustration. He also practices corporeal punishment on his kids: Though we don’t see anyone receive a whuppin’, Jacob does order David to find a stick.
A fire burns down an out building. David spies a snake, and he’s about to throw rocks at it before his Grandma stops him. Better, she says, to have it out in the open. “Things that hide are more dangerous and scary,” she says. Male chicks are routinely destroyed, and we see smoke issue from a chimney, where they’re incinerated. Grandma watches professional wrestling quite a bit, and she worries a great deal over the participants’ well-being.
We hear one s-word and read, in subtitles, a few other milder profanities—most coming from Grandma while she’s playing cards. (They include “b–tard” and “d–n.”) A teen flips off Paul as he drags his cross through a street.
Jacob smokes cigarettes. Someone drinks beer. A boy and his father use chewing tobacco (the boy without his father’s knowledge).
Grandma brews up a bit of Korean medicine to help David’s heart that she says includes “everything, even deer antlers.” After a sip, David solemnly looks at his grandmother and says, “In the future, never ever bring this again.” (He’s told instead that he’ll have to drink it every day.)
As mentioned, David sometimes wets his mattress, and he hides his soiled underwear so he won’t get in trouble. Another person suffers a nighttime accident, too.
Someone drinks a bit of urine, thinking that it’s Mountain Dew. We hear discussion and, eventually, jokes related to this incident afterward.
We witness some cultural unease in this corner of Arkansas. Jacob and Monica’s family are treated, especially in church, as something of a curiosity, and sometimes that curiosity slips into outright, if unintentional, racism. A boy, for instance, asks David why his face is so flat. “It isn’t flat,” David says, to which the other boy breaks into a grin and, shortly after, invites David to spend the night. Meanwhile, a girl starts—quite sincerely—making a series of sounds that to her sound Asian, and she politely asks Anne to let her know if anything she says is an actual word.
But Jacob and Monica have their own stereotypes in play, too. Monica calls this corner of Arkansas “this hillbilly place,” and both she and Jacob can look down their noses at their rougher, less-urbane neighbors.
Minari is a quintessentially American story as seen through new eyes—the eyes of David, a 5-year-old son of immigrant parents searching for their own slice of Eden. And the result is, quite frankly, a thing of beauty.
Minari strikes me a little like a Steinbeck story: Like Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, Minari is deeply rooted in the earth, a wellspring of both hope and pain, of boundless promise and terrifying disaster. And like many Steinbeck stories, you can feel different cultures rub against each other like sandpaper.
But this is also—even primarily—a story about family. Throughout the film, we can feel it teeter, like Jacob’s farm, on the brink of disaster. But like Grandma’s minari—a sturdy little plant that can grow almost anywhere, she says—this family is tougher, and sweeter, than it looks.
This is often where, at Plugged In, we must stick in a big ol’ “but,” cautioning readers about its sex and violence and bad language. And admittedly, Minari isn’t problem free. We do hear some swearing as well as some references to gender-specific organs. This family suffers, too: illness, disaster, the threat of financial ruin.
But many of those problems add context and character to the story—a rare thing indeed. It’s not gratuitous, nor is it extreme. It, like the rich, Arkansas earth, can get a bit dirty, muddy. But the goodness that springs from it is, perhaps, worth the trouble: a story of family. Of faith. Of finding priceless blessings in the midst of tragedy and cataclysm.
Perhaps it’s fitting.
It’s been, arguably, a cataclysmic year for the movie industry. Everything feels so unsettled and uncertain. The whole industry smacks a bit of desperation, and the crop of late 2020, early 2021 awards-bait movies are clawing for every bit of attention they can get. But here, in the midst of them, you find this quietly powerful story, hidden like a crop of herbs by the water. And you find that it indeed is something special.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.