Not only is 12-year-old Ellie at that awkward preteen stage, but she’s also the new kid in school prompting stares and loud whispers by her classmates. She’s a recent immigrant with parents whose English is their second language. Fumbling her way through grammar, the sixth-grader is painfully aware of her loneliness. But her only companion, besides her family, is the best friend she left behind in Israel to whom she connects through chatty letters.

In Foreign Letters, Ellie (Noa Rotstein) obsessively nails every detail of her new life in long missives illustrating her world of1982 America. Marveling to her pen pal about “all the free stuff” in the United States, she references plastic bags in the supermarket’s produce section, and packets of sugar and mustard at restaurants. Ellie also takes great delight in recounting weird American customs like “a holiday in December where everyone puts a tree inside their house.”

Her unwelcome reticence also gives her acute observational abilities. While listening to a conversation where a man talks haltingly, Ellie writes, “English is so hard, even Americans can’t speak it. They keep stopping to remember words.”

After suffering a deep personal loss due to war, Ellie’s mother moved her family in hopes of raising the children in a more peaceful environment. Still, she’s mindful that they haven’t been truly accepted in their adopted country.

Complaining to her husband, she tells him that the expression, “I have a cousin in Israel” is code for “I’m Jewish,” a phrase that shouldn’t be spoken out loud to non-Jews.

“Jew is a bad word,” she adds, “but Jewish is okay.”

As daughter Ellie’s English improves so does her ability to make friends. Soon, she’s hanging out with classmate, Thuy (Dalena Le), a refugee from Vietnam. Together, they forge a bond built on their common experience of being outsiders thrust into a new environment because of war.

But while Ellie’s family enjoys a middle-class life, Thuy’s is impoverished and she wrestles with feelings of shame and loathing—even attributing imaginary traits to her real father. A model minority of her own making, Thuy refuses to readily accept Ellie’s friendship. But when she finally does open up, she embraces their intimacy and the way they share secrets, even teaching Ellie a Vietnamese dance.

Directed by Ela Thier (also playing Ellie’s mother), Foreign Letters is based on her own childhood friendship with a Vietnamese girl. Authentic and captivating, its subtle but strong anti-war message is a healthy one for kids to see. The film is a part of Children’s Film Festival Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum from January 23 to February 2.

Another film showing at the festival, My Avatar Horse, hails from China and features a horse-raising Mongol family living on pastoral grasslands. Young Husile is the loving caretaker of his white steed, Chagan, who allows only the boy to ride him while tossing off others like flecks of dust. One day, Husile encounters three men who tell him Chagan is an avatar that protects their Boerhu Clan’s obo, or shrine, and that a reincarnation ceremony will take place in one year.

Although they request that the boy continue caring for Chagan until their return, Husile’s father has other plans. Commanding his son to attend school in the city, which requires his living there, Husile’s father also leases the family’s land and takes a factory job making yurts.

The series of abrupt changes wreak havoc for Husile who can’t seem to adjust to his new situation and surroundings. In his class, taught by his aunt, he plots to be with Chagan again while two mischievous boys attempt to help him.

This charming story includes intriguing ethnic customs that are highlighted at the Nadam Congress, a major occasion of the Eleventh Asia Arts Festival in Erdos Inner-Mongolia. Scenes of the dramatic event are breathtakingly beautiful, but unfortunately, too short.

Now, in its ninth year, the Children’s Film Festival Seattle runs for 11 days screening some 130 films from 32 countries. Live performances, workshops, and the annual signature pancake breakfast are also highlighted. This year’s festival theme is “magic,” and while both films contain elements of mysticism, it’s the simple story of friendship that makes them so enchanting.

Foreign Letters screens on Sunday, January 26 at 5:00 p.m. My Avatar Horse screens on Saturday, February 1 at 7:00 p.m. For more tickets and more information, visit childrensfilmfestivalseattle.nwfilmforum.org.

Children’s Film Festival Seattle
at the Northwest Film Forum
January 23 to February 2
Northwest Film Forum
1515 12th Ave.
Seattle, WA 98122

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