August 7, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Ocean of Pearls' -- GRADE: C+

Heritage and career conflict in 'Ocean of Pearls'

Omid Abtahi plays a Sikh doctor who must compromise beliefs. (Kim Simms)

The tense juxtaposition of ancient culture and modern world has offered ample subject matter to filmmakers over the past couple of decades, and "Ocean of Pearls" shows the theme is far from exhausted.

That it does so in a pointedly low-key manner -- no heads get broken here -- makes it all the more interesting, even if the dramatic cues lean at times toward TV-movie territory.

First-time director and writer (and Detroit physician) Sarab Neelam deals with a difficult, complex subject in a manner that is obviously heartfelt.

Amrit Singh (Omid Ahtabi) is a Sikh physician in Toronto when he's lured to a new transplant program in Detroit. Leaving behind his girlfriend, Smita (Navi Rawat), Amrit moves to Michigan.

But once he gets to Detroit he finds the turban he wears as a sign of his religion and heritage gets in the way of his career, as a bland-looking white guy threatens to win the job Amrit deserves. At the same time, he finds himself drawn to an administrator (Heather McComb) at the hospital where he works.

So Amrit does the once-unthinkable -- he cuts his long hair off and stops wearing his turban. He hides this from Smita when she comes for a visit, but eventually must confront his staunchly traditional father (Ajay Mehta) with his decision.

The acting here is surprisingly even and Neelam rarely betrays himself as a newbie behind the camera. For a local indie film, this "Ocean" is smooth indeed.

The only questions have to do with the story. Co-written by V. Prasad, it can be overly heavy at times, and then at the end it resolves somewhat abruptly, leaving the message to this message movie a bit vague.

Still, as a vehicle for demystifying the Sikh life while again highlighting the confusion of the modern world, "Ocean of Pearls" works well indeed.

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