Fresh & Diverse ‘Signature Move’ Is Also Overly Familiar [BAMcinemaFest Review]

For a couple of weeks now, we’ve been living in a post-“Wonder Woman” world. A world which, you can be certain, is a better world. One where the genuine hunger for a female (super)hero has been served a tasty menu and a collective appetite has been whetted. One where doors are likely cracking open for female directors and female-centric stories and narratives are being considered more seriously (if only because studio execs are seeing the piles of cash “Wonder Woman” is raking in). These are, of course, generous assumptions about Crusty, White Hollywood. But, what can’t be denied, is that the film filled a void and people were genuinely happy to witness a reflection of a more diverse world. Basically, no matter what banal stories Hollywood studios are greenlighting, people are actually looking for fresh, heterogeneous narratives. They are looking to see themselves on the screen (and not all people are white men) and “Signature Move,” is, in so many ways, just the sort of film some people are looking for.

“Signature Move” follows Zaynab (Fawzia Mirza), a lawyer with a thriving practice, a quirky scooter, and a traditional Pakistani mother (Shabana Azmi) who has moved into her Chicago walk-up. What she doesn’t have — and what her mother badly wants for her — is a husband. But, unbeknownst to her mother, Zaynab is gay. Similarly unbeknownst: she’s training to be a Lucha Libre wrestler. In essence, she lives a life that she is certain her mother would not understand, so she builds walls around herself and fills her life with secrets. When Zaynab meets Alma (a charming Sari Sanchez), an intimate connection is sparked after a one night stand. Zaynab then fights to keep the romance a secret for as long as she can, even going so far as to undermine their love.

Signature MoveDespite the diverse cast and the fresh perspective, in the end, what unravels is a painfully familiar story. Directed by Jennifer Reeder and written by Mirza and Lisa Donato, “Signature Move” never is able to harness its better idiosyncrasies or capitalize on any of the goodwill that abounds throughout the gauzy, brightly lit picture. Instead, the film unfolds exactly how you would expect it to: feelings are hurt, trusts betrayed, challenges accepted, forgiveness granted. Even the nuances of race and ethnicity and the way the traditional and the progressive collide are familiar. And what could be exciting — the cultural differences between Zaynab and Alma — is never truly mined. All of which can make watching “Signature Move” feel, at times, like a letdown. But only because of how much potential it has. The setup, quirky as it sounds, is exciting, and the voices present are so vibrant and aching to be heard. The disappointment comes from the fact that Reeder and co. felt the need to fit it all into such an insipid, contrite package.

READ MORE: Hollywood Still Has A Huge Diversity Problem And 8 Other CinemaCon Thoughts

To boot, Mirza doesn’t quite have the spunk to carry a whole movie on her shoulders. At times, she brings a surprising earnestness, but often she struggles to imbue scenes with their necessary emotion. Sanchez, though, is a delight through and through and her relationship with her mother (Charin Alvarez) has the spark that Mirza and Azmi’s relationship lacks. And despite the stilted performances and unevenness of the tone, the general sincerity that abounds is hard to be displeased with: “Signature Move” feels like a movie that everybody involved in was excited to make.

Signature-movie-new-pictureSo while there is the sensation of a missed opportunity, “Signature Move” is a starting point: a host of new voices who are eager to tell new stories and who are going out on new limbs to do so. And it’s hard to fault a film with such ambition and such interest in marginalized stories. Seen on its own, “Signature Move,” while intermittently quirky and fun, is a misfire that’s down for the count. But seen on the spectrum of progress, it’s hard not to appreciate this wily fighter. [C]