Jamojaya takes its name after a legend: As relayed in an animated sequence narrated by Joyo (Yayu A.W. Unru), Jamojaya was a prince transformed against his will into a banyan tree. In an act of love, his brother turns himself into a bird to look for him. But their inability to communicate keeps a proper reunion forever out of reach — the bird unable to recognize his brother’s new form, the tree unable to reveal himself even when his brother stands in his branches.
It’s a story Joyo adores so much he’s named his two sons after it: James (Brian Imanuel), now an up-and-coming rapper, and Jaya, who died years ago in a plane crash. And its sense of searching permeates the entire picture, to mostly moving, occasionally frustrating effect.
The Bottom Line
Powerful performances anchor a messy family drama.
Directed by Justin Chon (who, between Gook, Ms. Purple and Blue Bayou has made a specialty of bittersweet indie dramas untangling complicated family dynamics), Jamojaya finds James and Joyo at a crossroads. Having found minor success in their home country of Indonesia, teenage James has signed with an American label promising to take his music career to the next level. But in order to climb those ranks, he’s decided to fire Joyo, who’s been serving as his manager despite his total lack of knowledge about the business. As James holes up in Hawaii with his new team to begin work on his new album, Joyo drops by for a surprise visit, forcing father and son to finally reckon with years of unspoken guilt and anger and need.
An elliptical script by Chon and Maegan Houang pares down the central relationship to its most potent components. What James and Joyo’s day-to-day lives were before this turning point, or who they are outside their fraught relationship, is only lightly hinted at in dialogue. The two come across less like flesh-and-blood individuals who might continue to exist outside the frame than a pair of archetypes trapped within it, rehashing old hurts over and over. Thoughtful location work and gorgeous cinematography by Ante Cheng turn Hawaii into an odd sort of liminal space: half Edenic wildness, half soulless purgatory. In combination, these choices lend Jamojaya a dreamy, almost primal quality, as if it too might be a sort of legend.
If its narrative beats are painted in broad strokes (with a few misguided flourishes, including an interminable strip-club scene that seems more intent on admiring its own artistry than making a point) the emotions pulsing underneath them are purposefully unwieldy. Joyo needs to be needed by James, even as his insistent meddling throughout the visit — extended a day or two at a time, as James keeps urging Joyo to return to Indonesia, and Joyo keeps just not doing it — shows him to be under-qualified as a manager, under-appreciated as an assistant and unwelcome as a guest. In turn, timid James seems to understand on some level that he could use a loyal ally like Joyo to fight for him. But the more the older man clings, the more James feels the urge to escape his suffocating care.
James is by far the more reserved of the two lead roles, not least because he spends so much of the film trying to placate either his father or his label while his own desires go unheeded, yet Imanuel delivers a performance that’s no less touching for being subtle. In rare moments when James gets to perform, Imanuel (a rapper himself, under the moniker Rich Brian) projects a natural charisma that makes obvious why the label snapped him up in the first place. But it’s Unru’s full-bodied performance that truly sets Jamojaya ablaze — his face rendered almost ghostly in its intensity toward James, his posture slumping under the accumulated weight of his many heartbreaks and disappointments, his limbs flailing as he goes about his morning routine of forcing out laughs so loud they might be sobs.
In contrast to the complexity of Jamojaya‘s family drama, its critique of the music industry is built on timeworn cliches about its tendency to chew up bright young artists and spit them out as empty corporate product. Kate Lyn Sheil, Anthony Kiedis and Kyle Mooney pop up in minor roles as a brusque business manager, a pretentious music video director and an obnoxious producer, respectively, but it’s Henry Ian Cusick’s record exec who most neatly summarizes Jamojaya‘s take: He’s a racist, condescending prick who barely even pretends to give a shit about James as an artist or to have his best interests in mind, and that’s about all there is to him.
The two sides of James’ crisis come to a head in the third act: The simmering resentments between him and his father finally boil over in a fight over the dinner table, not too long before his discomfort with the label’s attempts to remake him in their market-tested mold becomes untenable. These confrontations serve up the catharsis we and these characters are waiting for, but when they come they feel overwrought. They’re less convincing, certainly, than the ragged uneasiness that came before them. But such messiness, too, seems somehow fitting for the tale Jamojaya is telling — one about the kind of love and grief and guilt that refuses tidy endings or clean breaks, that can’t seem to help but slosh around all over the place.