Since the earliest days of film, the romantic notion of New York City as a metropolitan melting pot, where outsiders could start fresh, has permeated a variety of cinematic stories as diverse as Coming To America and The Godfather Part II to Brooklyn and Tigertail. Whether you’re from Iowa, Ireland, Italy or in this case Indonesia – New York is a mythical haven where you can find your dreams, your tribe and even yourself. Although we’ve seen hundreds of these narratives play out before, few have been as culturally unique as Indonesian film Ali and Ratu Ratu Queens.
Lucky Kuswandi’s latest feature begins in Jakarta with a heartbreaking prologue that traces how our protagonist Ali (Iqbaal Ramadhan) came to be abandoned by his mother Mia (Marissa Anita), an aspiring singer who travelled to New York to pursue her passion. Unhappy with the long-distance arrangement, Ali’s father Hasan (Ibnu Jamil) files for divorce and cuts off all contact between his family and his wife.
Years later, after his dad’s passing, a teenaged Ali discovers a stack of letters from his mother (including a pair of plane tickets to New York) that his father hid from him. In his mind, these letters prove that Mia still loves and wants to be with him. So against his extended family’s wishes, Ali packs up and flies to the Big Apple to track down his long-lost mum.
This is where he meets Party (Nirina Zubir), Biyah (Asri Welas), Ance (Tika Panggabean) and Chinta (Happy Salma) – a group of rambunctious, middle-aged Indonesian ladies with a dream of opening their own restaurant called Ratu Ratu Queens (“the Queens of Queens”). To achieve their goal, these women have saved up for years, working odd jobs that range from domestic cleaning and massage therapy to Biyah’s hilarious side hustles as a paparazzi photographer and street gambler. The quartet take in the stray boy as a tenant, seeing his rent money as additional means to further their culinary ambition. Meanwhile, Ali is just content to have a roof over his head as he continues his search for Mia.
But as the film goes on, the women and Ali grow to become an unusually endearing found family in their own right as they bond and share laughs over beef rendang and shopping trips. Ali also falls in love with Ance’s gorgeous daughter Eva (Aurora Ribero), much to the chagrin of her protective single mother. New York’s vibrant bustle even proves to be a stimulating environment for Ali’s talents as an illustrator and short filmmaker.
But while he seems to have found romance, inspiration and the nurturing support system he’s always needed, Ali is – spoiler alert – devastated when he eventually finds his mother. Not only has Mia moved on to create a happy new family with a wealthy white husband, she even refuses to acknowledge Ali’s existence when they are reunited.
Dramatically, the estrangement between Ali and Mia forms the powerful emotional crux of the movie. While Ramadhan is serviceable (albeit unremarkable) as the puppy dog lead that we all root for, it’s Anita’s phenomenal performance – encompassing a complex mixture of maternal love and crippling shame – that elevates their dynamic and adds poignant layers to what could otherwise have been a cut-and-dried story of a naïve boy betrayed by an uncaring mother. Even with limited screen time and dialogue, Anita does a fantastic job of conveying the latent wellspring of pain and regret at the root of her desire to bury any reminders of her past failures.
However, the true highlights of the film are undoubtedly the Ratu Ratu Queens, whose charismatic personalities and livewire chemistry steal the show whenever they’re on screen. Zubir, Welas, Pangabea and Salma are a crackerjack comedic combo that could easily headline their own Broad City-esque sitcom about Indonesian aunties. Give us an entire spin-off just about them, please! Likewise, Kuswandi’s artful eye goes far in vividly capturing Ali’s immersion in New York, a city that seems loud and imposing at first, but evolves to become vital and magical once he acclimates to its charms.
While Ginatri S. Noer’s screenplay – punctuated by melodrama and pat resolutions to clichéd conflicts – does come off as derivative, Ali and Ratu Ratu Queens still triumphs thanks to elegant direction, potent performances and the zesty energy of its titular female stars. Despite being underpinned by overused family drama tropes and tired messaging about the “true meaning of family”, this is still a sweet, entertaining and heartwarming film that largely succeeds by adding a distinctively fresh Indonesian spin to the narrative fabric of the New York immigrant experience.
- Director: Lucky Kuswandi
- Starring: Iqbaal Ramadhan, Marissa Anita, Aurora Ribero
- Release date: June 17 (Netflix)