Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Esmé Holden Featured Film

Yellow Bus — Wendy Bednarz [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 18, 2023

Sometimes people die for no reason, and that a tragedy can be so banal makes it all the more incomprehensible. This is what the immigrant family in Yellow Bus have to deal with, when one of their daughters is accidentally left trapped on an aging school bus in the brutal desert heat of the United Arab Emirates. First-time feature director Wendy Bednarz is also unable to reckon with this tragedy, in her own way, as she here grabs any shorthand for grief she can and holds it as close as Ananda (Tannishtha Chatterjee) holds the ashes of her daughter Anju, which she literally carries with her wherever she goes. In Yellow Bus, this complicated, unimaginable experience is flattened into tropes, into crying in the shower and seeing visions, as if stitched entirely from other movies, or, at best, based on assumptions of what it might be like to go through something like this. If it comes from Bednarz’s experiences, or the experiences of someone she knows, then it’s only more tragic to see them warped into something entirely abstracted from reality, and fit into such a basic template of festival-friendly realism. Unsurprisingly, much of Yellow Bus is shot in handheld close-ups with a shallow depth of field, a tired and entirely reified style desperate to convey the impression of truth. Meanwhile, the characters spend the film’s opening scenes mechanically establishing themselves, performing rather than living their relationships. It’s almost like Bednarz is in a rush to get to, and then past, the tragedy she chooses not to show (although she doesn’t quite resist portending it heavily). But that leaves the film, only fifteen minutes in, without anywhere to go. All it can do is shuffle these tropes of trauma.

Yellow Bus only starts to find its direction when Ananda chances upon some hint of foul play, when she’s given a chance to believe that Anju’s death might not have been so random and pointless. This might seem like a betrayal of the film’s central question, dissolving it into a more conventional mystery with a clear answer, and to some extent it is, but it does speak to the way many parents cope with the death of their child by directing their pain into a fight for justice. It’s obviously a deeply understandable and often noble thing to do, but it’s hard not to wonder if keeping a trauma so fresh for so long can ever end in personal resolution. Ananda, however, pretty straightforwardly pushes people away and deepens her family’s wounds. She’s much more driven by simple revenge than justice, because she never sees much beyond her daughter. This too is understandable, but it reaches such melodramatic heights in Yellow Bus that when she’s shoddily wrapping a package, you could almost believe it was a pipe bomb to send to Anju’s headteacher. The film pushes her right up to the edges of likability, especially when she tries to make love to her blandly kind husband (Amit Sial) after finding out that Anju might still have been breathing when she was found. The psychological portrait hardly rings true in this register of intensity, and it creates an uncomfortable friction with the film’s realist style, but it’s at least more challenging than the formal and thematic ambivalence surrounding it.

But that peters out soon enough, as anything interesting Bednarz hits upon comes only part and parcel with a blind flurry of other half-ideas. She can’t decide, either in script or direction, if Ananda’s investigation was justified; our heroine finds some genuine wrongdoing, but then suddenly forgives the person she thinks is responsible. Or if she went too far with her family, she almost seems vindicated when, in quick succession, her daughter and husband apologize to her. This kind of trauma, and the complications that arise from and entangle with it, are messy, but the film is not. All of its ambiguities and contradictions are flattened into a neat and comforting ending — where the family, quite literally, sees the light at the end of the tunnel — revealing them as another part of the sloppiness that defines the production, all the way down to the often choppy and amateur editing. Yellow Bus isn’t over-determined in the way many first features are because its intent is too fuzzy and unsure. These are not ideas that are as yet unformed, but rather ones that seem to lack a vision altogether.

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 4.