Written and directed by Zia Mohajerjasbi, amidst the landscape of a transforming city, a young Eritrean-American boy confronts the realities of change and loss. Starring: Joseph Smith, Natnael Mebrahtu, Selamawit Gebresus, Haileselassie Kidane, Esther Kibreab, Aaron Sahle and Selemun Welderfael.
When you’re headed into a story about a teenage son of immigrants, living in a gentrifying city that’s slowly alienating its citizens, you’re probably imagining it’s going to be fairly grim or gritty but that’s not what Know Your Place is. It certainly captures all of those political and racial issues but it doesn’t go deep down the rabbit hole of over-serious, depressive drama, it holds onto a youthfulness and compassion amongst the struggles. It creates a great balance by building its perspective so succinctly around Robel’s (Joseph Smith) viewpoint. By doing so it manages to get a fantastic handle on the weight of this story without becoming too heavy.
It’s a story of two parts, in the first half we get to know Robel and his family, their way of life but in its second half it evolves into a tense, more direct representation of their struggle. It takes the bull by the horns in grappling with the racism, financial woes and dwindling community that they’re facing. In that sense it really brings to life how Robel is impacted by his family’s problems, he’s not simply an oblivious teenager, these issues are closing him off with stress and worry, even if he seems fine on the outside. There is still the classic resentment of having to take on more family responsibility as a teenager but it would be unusual if there weren’t, and there’s a respectful, protective kid hiding beneath his stubbornness.
Zia Mohajerjasbi’s directorial style really embraces the different themes to this story but most strongly the changes to the community. He uses a lot of exploratory shots in between the drama to highlight how they’re impacted and the direction the neighbourhood is headed. It’s nicely subtle and adds extra layers to what the story is already giving us. It’s also simply extremely well shot on the whole, it adds a solid atmosphere which is both tense and caring. The only weakness to that is its overt moments, particularly in dealing with racism, which aren’t as strong but it’s hard to really fault the film for only representing the ridiculous nature of reality with its rampant prejudice.
What you also definitely cannot fault is the brilliant lead performance from Joseph Smith. He captures the naivety and charisma to Robel then reveals the gradually cracking layers beneath. Quietly bringing out his vulnerability and the combustible nature to how he is pushing down his emotions and feelings to fulfil the classic expectation of masculinity and strength. Smith also has wonderful support from Natnael Mebrahtu who brings an unexpected quality, he fits himself nicely into a stereotype of young men who take nothing seriously but as time goes on, he shows us there’s more to him. He represents a modern class of young men, more open and capable of recognising the struggle in others and to try and help them approach it in a healthy way. While still holding onto enough of the typical emotional immaturity to keep him authentic.
Know Your Place is a thoughtfully shot, subtle and captivating drama. It takes an unusual path to explore this family’s different struggles, bringing an understated but impactful tone rather than trying to be gritty or harsh. Joseph Smith leads the story with a strong performance, perfectly capturing the internalised stress and vulnerability. It has plenty to say in its story but in his debut feature Zia Mohajerjasbi’s direction also takes it a step further, enhancing the tone and atmosphere and deepening its layers.