All Sarah (Nana Mensah) wants to do is move to Ohio in “Queen of Glory,” a seemingly modest wish that makes a lot more sense considering the chaos around her. Still making deliveries for her father Godwin (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) who moved back to Ghana after he left her and her mother Grace in New York, the PhD student is biding her time at Columbia until her lover Lyle (Adam Leon) makes a clean break from his wife and she can finish up her dissertation, leaving time enough for her life to be thrown into disarray when Grace unexpectedly dies. While her on-screen alter ego is frustrated to find herself in such a mess, Mensah does well to revel in it in her feature directorial debut, a sly, seriocomic delight that keeps its many charms coming.
Although not as far as Ghana, the Bronx might as well be for Sarah, who reports back to Lyle that “It’s weird here,” upon her arrival in the neighborhood, a place that becomes even stranger when she discovers that the religious bookstore that her mother owned has been left in her care. When the will left nothing to Godwin, he doesn’t feel compelled to offer much in return to his daughter, despite making the trip from Accra, making himself back at home in the house his wife took in the divorce as Sarah reluctantly takes up responsibility for making funeral arrangements. She’ll tell anyone who will listen she’s leaving town soon, but that looks increasingly less likely as she tries to find a buyer for the bookstore and her calls to Lyle go unreturned. Besides she feels an increasing pang of responsibility towards Pitt (Meeko), an ex-con who got his life back on track after Grace gave him steady employment at the store.
It’s fitting that in a film where everyone has rough edges, “Queen of Glory” does as well, having a bit of a patchwork quality to the editing that invokes historical footage from Ghana as a means of recalling Sarah’s heritage and street scenes from the Bronx that add local flavor juxtaposed against some brilliantly composed scenes that unfold entirely from a single fixed perspective, making it feel as if the world is caving in on Sarah simply when the frame is cluttered by other people before her. Mensah couldn’t have crafted a more impressive display for her many talents, but it never feels showy, as she moves subtly from Sarah’s aggravation to acceptance of her duties as a daughter in her luminous central performance to tossing off some of the sharpest one-liners she wrote in incidental dialogue. Her greatest skill might be attention to detail when every door opened, whether it be a professor’s office at Columbia or the anarchic home of the Russian neighbors who Grace lived next to, gives an instant credibility to the scene that unfolds and she mines their idiosyncrasies for all they’re worth.
As Sarah starts to believe she isn’t being valued enough, her reevaluation of what’s important to her puts a fresh spin on an immigrant’s story when a daughter driven to succeed in ways that her parents could never have dreamed of for themselves suddenly wonders if they were living their best life. Honoring tradition may come less naturally for Sarah than breaking with it, but “Queen of Glory” manages to seem as if it’s doing both when you know you’re in such good hands as Mensah’s as a storyteller and she’s taking you someplace new.