'Aisha' Review: Letitia Wright Stuns in a Moving Character Drama [Tribeca]

Aisha Osagie wakes up early. She bathes and prays. She takes a long bus ride to a hair salon, where she does menial labor for minimal pay while making small talk with pleasant-enough white ladies, and then she takes the long bus ride home. She’s a Nigerian immigrant, seeking asylum in Ireland, a decision that will be made at a very important interview six weeks from now. “They must know everything that happened,” her mother insists, a sentiment shared by her attorney. We don’t know, at first, what “everything” is. But we will. 

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The Irish writer/director Frank Berry tells her story in “Aisha,” and he tells it in the person of Letitia Wright, who plays the title role. Those drawn to the picture based on her work in the Marvel world, or even in the starry “Death on the Nile,” may be surprised by what they find here; this is a muted character drama, the kind of thing plenty of actors say they’re taking those paycheck roles to subsidize, but few actually do. 

The opening card informs us that Berry’s script is based on the real experiences of 

“international protection applicants for the Republic of Ireland,” and there’s a real authenticity to the details of how this process works (or, more often, does not work) – how asylum-seekers can be shuttled from place to place at a cruel overseer’s whim, fully aware how a change in scenery or routine can take the wind right out of one’s sails. And the line between fiction and documentary blurs somewhat in a sequence intercutting real asylum-seekers, women who speak with candor, and fear, and anger about the threat of deportation.

Aisha is not like that, not at first; she’s just trying to live her life, quietly and modestly. Yet all day, every day, she’s subjected to microaggressions and inconveniences, which she tolerates and moves past as best she can. She knows better than to make trouble; she’s a Black Muslim woman in a white country. That’s three strikes before she’s even up to the plate. 

But little hints at what this new life could begin to appear. A young Irishman named Conor (Josh O’Connor) comes on as a night guard at the dorm-like “accommodation centre” where Aisha lives, and he’s kind to her; they strike up a friendship, and possibly more. A charming byplay develops between them, and an easy closeness – at one point, she asks, simply, “Can I talk to you,” but she doesn’t talk, she just weeps, and we realize she has no one on this earth she can share her sadness with. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m fine.” She shares that last thought as an aside, thrown over her shoulder as she goes, but it’s the key to her entire existence.

Together, these two actors sell this unlikely relationship, which could’ve been a writer’s construct, an easy release valve, because it is her that she is occasionally allowed, even only for a fleeting moment, to feel something like hope or happiness. Wright and O’Connor don’t reach for effects in these two-scenes – they play them simply and effectively. Berry’s filmmaking exhibits similar restraint; there’s no musical score to push our buttons, or indulgences in mock heroics or easy answers. The film, and its star, stares down the horrible, impossible choices she’s forced to make, over and over, and when she finally snaps, you can hardly blame her. The entire performance builds to that single moment, that loss of control, a slip of the mask that’s over in a second.

Wright brings considerable baggage to the film – to any film she does now, frankly – but credit where it’s due: this is the work of a skilled, commanding actor. It’s a tricky performance, and it would be easy to lean into the glumness and despair, or to play for easy sympathy as her situation grows increasingly desperate. What Wright does instead is what the character would do: to accept the facts of her situation, and try not to succumb

“Aisha” will probably find itself greeted by a narrow audience, as it’s not an inspiring, hopeful, triumph-of-the-human-spirit story – for good reason, because those are, in this world, few and far between. But it is a thoughtful and intelligent film, and it finds a gifted actor doing some very tricky things quite well. [B]

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