There’s an immediate confidence that radiates from Anthony Onah’s “Daru Ju,” reflective of the way that Seyi Ogunde (Aml Ameen) feels he must carry himself in the world. Plunging audiences into Wall Street where Seyi works as a banker, the film’s slick sheen suggests a grander story than it actually is, but to some extent that’s the point. In telling the story of the son of Nigerian immigrants, Onah finds more than enough drama in observing a man whose parents do not understand his success on the other side of the George Washington Bridge, his caucasian colleagues whom he hides his ethnicity from to present himself as equal, and is at risk of losing sight of who he is as the lies he tells to distance himself from his true identity begin to overwhelm him.
Seyi isn’t an easy character to like, and only becomes more difficult to sympathize with as his problems intensify as a result of his own self-inflicted wounds, but between Ameen’s compelling performance and the way Onah lays out what he’s up against, he earns your respect as he begins to lose it with those onscreen. The trouble starts when he’s invited to a party where he’s privy to insider information on a farm equipment company that he eagerly feeds to his boss (Bill Sage) to get ahead. He also catches the attention of Liz (Lucy Griffiths), who recently came back from serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon and while the two bond over flirting in Pidgin, that’s about as far as Seyi is willing to reveal about himself as the two start to grow closer. Seyi isn’t too much more forthcoming around his family in the sticks, with his mother (a scene-stealing Michael Hyatt) and sister (Hope Olaide Wilson) eager to have him more involved in family affairs after his father (Souléymane Sy Savané) has had a stroke and wants to return to Nigeria.
One needn’t be a day trader or Nigerian to commiserate with the increasing demands on Seyi, but the cultural specificity in both areas is part of what gives “Dara Ju” such intrigue, long before SEC investigators come into the picture. Onah does well to show the casual cruelty of the different worlds that Seyi traverse between and has built up his defenses against, whether it’s the cutthroat nature of the stock market or a home life that has been poisoned by his father’s actions decades earlier that’s only referred to occasionally in hushed tones. It is also a touch of brilliance on the part of the writer/director and cinematographer David McFarland to fill every frame with a variety of colors and sharp contrasts to amplify Seyi’s chameleonic nature.
Though the introduction of drugs into Seyi’s system – and by extension, the film’s plot – may feel like an unnecessary additive when tension already runs high, “Dara Ju” nonetheless marks the arrival of an exciting new filmmaker in Onah, who elegantly tackles the thorny issues of personal identity inherent in living in an increasingly globalized society where homogeneity seems like the most natural response, particularly amongst first-generation immigrants. It speaks volumes that amidst a thriller rife with suspense in Seyi’s personal and professional life, it’s a quiet moment when he is simply asked to “be himself” that is most provocative. By staying true to who he is, Onah has crafted a stirring debut that’s one of a kind.