Taking audiences through the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy, Yellow Bus is far from an easy watch. But as with any film that traverses some truly gruelling territory, the question is whether going through a journey like this is actually worthwhile. In the case of Wendy Bednarz’s feature directorial debut, the answer is far from a clear or affirmative yes. There’s hints of affecting filmmaking here, but in the end, the sum of all parts just don’t add up to a cohesive piece of storytelling.
Set in the Arabian Gulf, Indian immigrants Ananda (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and Gagan (Amit Sial) are struck with sudden tragedy when their younger daughter is accidentally left on a school bus on a hot summer day. As they navigate their grief, the inequalities of being temporary citizens in a foreign land set in, creating even more devastation for a family that has already been pushed to the edge.
While Yellow Bus should be lauded for its tender and respectful approach to very difficult subject matter, the film never feels like a fully realized experience. The initial depiction of the inciting tragedy sets the tone with gut-wrenching poignancy, but following that sequence, the narrative somehow fizzles out without capitalizing on that emotional momentum. It’s clear that Bednarz is trying to steer away from any hints of melodrama, but a certain level of emotional intensity needs to be present in order for a story like this to work. With that being absent, the film falters in being tonally appropriate at times, which confounds some of its more effective emotional beats.
Part of this muted emotional output might be a reflection of Bednarz trying to mirror Gagan’s repressed emotional state, in which the character almost makes an effort to not openly grieve in any way. This decision does help support the film’s commentary on the inequalities experienced by immigrants, even when it comes to bereavement. It’s unfair that both Ananda and Gagan have to worry about deportation when it comes to seeking the truth behind their daughter’s passing, and the screenplay does convey this sentiment well. But for a film that’s still centred around a family’s experience with grief, their mourning often takes a backseat to these socio-political issues.
Despite feeling like a well-intentioned narrative exercise, Yellow Bus never reaches that pinnacle of emotional catharsis that a film like this really needs. By being almost a bit too tame and perhaps overly contemplative, it all but takes away from the tragic undertones that are clearly being explored. Its commentary on displaced cultures also results in displaced tonalities within the film, which doesn’t always work either. There’s some worthwhile elements here, but the overall journey that Yellow Bus takes you on just isn’t worth the trip.