Aisha opens with a notice that the story “was researched with current and former international protection applicants to the Republic of Ireland and is inspired by real life experiences.” Knowing that in advance makes this already heartbreaking film hit even harder. Writer/director Frank Berry takes us deep inside the experience of one particular refugee, allowing us to see the endless number of humiliating struggles through her eyes. The old cliché about movies letting us peek into somebody else’s life for two hours is applicable here, and it’s powered by a stunning lead performance.

Aisha Osagie (Letitia Wright) is a Nigerian refugee in Ireland. She fled her homeland after some very bad people killed her father and brother. Every reason exists to believe they’ll come for her, too, should she return. Aisha works part-time in a hair salon and strikes up a friendship with Conor Healy (Josh O’Connor), an ex-convict recently hired as a security guard at the building where she’s housed. Unlike the other staff, he shows empathy toward her plight.

The film depicts the many challenges that face its central character. She’s kicked out of the building and sent to live in a parking lot filled with nondescript trailers. An immigration lawyer attempts to prep her for the upcoming hearing that will determine her fate. People react to her with derision because of her refugee status, especially bureaucrats, who seem to take perverse pride in being able to treat her as subhuman. Meanwhile, Aisha’s mother back home talks to her online, encouraging her to keep the faith that they’ll eventually be reunited.

Watching what she goes through provides plenty of gripping drama. The specificity with which the movie portrays what someone like her has to endure is eye-opening. Wright glues it together with a performance that is at once understated and commanding. We see the soft-spoken Aisha’s vulnerability, but also the well of strength that’s inside her. Giving up means returning to certain doom, so she turns into a fighter when necessary – and that’s fairly often. One of the best moments finds the character arguing that she doesn’t want a handout, she simply wants to work a job, earn her keep, and be safe. Wright makes that line thoroughly convincing. Combined with her recent turns in The Silent Twins and Surrounded, she’s quickly establishing herself as one of the most subtle, nuanced actresses working today.

O’Connor nicely backs her up. It’s a performance worlds away from his showy turn in Challengers, where he plays a troubled, egotistical stud. Unlike Patrick Zweig, Conor is shy, awkward, and a bit nerdy. I had trouble believing I was watching the same actor, so radically different is he in the two pictures. The Aisha/Conor relationship is touching, as he’s among the very few to treat her as a fellow human being, rather than as a label.

There are no easy answers in Aisha. It precisely illustrates the uncomfortable place refugees exist in, where they’re supposed to be unceasingly grateful for substandard housing, meager necessities, and the opportunity to not die. And, of course, the perpetual fear of deportation is always there, hanging over their heads like a dark cloud. Through Berry’s observant screenplay and Wright’s compassionate portrayal, the movie reminds us that immigrants don’t deserve to be judged by where they come from or the circumstances they’ve escaped; they need to be respected for trying to create a better life amid unimaginable hardship.

out of four

Aisha is unrated, but contains adult language and mature thematic material. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan