After his father (Akram El-Ahmar) dies from gunfire, Sami (E.J. Assi) gives up his college education to take over the family business, a 24-hour gas station, with the help of his cousin, Mike (Mike Batayeh). The station happens to be located in section of Detroit with a high crime rate which explains why its counter has a bullet-proof glass partition to protect Sami. Najlah (Nada Shouhayib) works at a cellphone store with her domineering brother Fadi (Steven Soro). When she enters Sami's gas station and meets him, they instantly fall in love, but they have to keep their relationship on the downlow because their Arab-American families don't give them permission to date one another. She's particularly afraid of what her brother might do if he finds out that she's Sami's girlfriend.
To label Detroit Unleaded as a romantic dramedy wouldn't be fair because it's more of a slice-of-life than anything else. Writer/director Rola Nashef as woven a film that's sweet, but not too sweet, amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally suspenseful, but not palpably. The same can be said for the romance which is understated---unless you count the scenes with Sami laying and flirting on adjacent shelves at the gas station as very romantic. They never actually have a dinner date or something along those lines where they have deep conversations. Yet, thanks to the talents of E.J. Assi and the radiant Nada Shouhayib, Detroit Unleaded does offer some charisma and warmth which helps to ground the film and to keep you engaged. More scenes showing them interacting with their families would have been beneficial; the settings remain too limited to the gas station and to the cellphone store. There aren't any particular surprises to be found, but it's worth mentioning that the ending feels realistic and refreshingly un-Hollywood.
The Scar, opening at the Quad via bvh Pictures, follows the 156 km Berlin Wall that remains today. The aerial views, shot through a helicopter, look equally breathtaking and grim given the wintry conditions with lots of white, black and gray colors on the ground. This doc would have worked better as a short, though, because for 78 minutes of nothing but aerial shots, it does feel monotonous and exhausting---not to mention dizzying if you suffer from vertigo. Director Burkhard von Harder blends some archival audio recordings that add some historical background, but there's too much dead space of no audio and just visuals and some accompanying music. By the end of the doc, aside from a few details peppered throughout, you won't find yourself learning something new or revealing about the Berlin Wall.
33-year-old Jack Hall (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is nearly 2 weeks away from leaving a group home for
the mentally ill which has lived at since the age of 19. He hopes to reconnect with his son (Judah Bellamy) and to find
basic necessities: a job and an affordable place to live. Those tasks turns out to be be much easier said than done,
though, as he learns to accept and face the harsh realities of life's struggles. His father (Joe Morton) refuses to
support him financially and prefers that he stays at the group home. His head nurse (K.K. Moggie) and doctor (James
McDaniel) don't provide him with the assistance or encouragement needed to set himself free from the home once and for
all. His only friend is Dundee (Danny Hoch) who helps him to find a job.
Writer/director Jono Oliver has a good ear for dialogue because much of the script feels unstilted. Home:____ remains character-driven throughout and doesn't have a moment that rings false, pretentious or contrived. With a less talented writer, the plot would have been uneven and anarchic with romantic subplots, violence and unnecessary flashbacks. Jono avoids all of that and instead maintains focus on Jack's struggles. The more you observe him, the more you care about him as a fallible human being. It also helps that Gbenga Akinnagbe gives a genuinely heartfelt performance---if there were any justice, he'd get some awards attention for his performance here. Even the smaller roles are well-cast, particularly the other mentally ill patients each of whom shines, impresses and adds richness to the film.
Concurrently, Home:___ makes criticism about the weaknesses in our society in terms of how we treat mentally ill patients once they're about transition into the outside worlds and in terms of them finding stability, both financially and generally. The criticisms, though, aren't preachy or nor do they hit you over the head; it just makes you aware of them and you can interpret them as you wish. In a film industry filled with cardboard characters and loud movies that could easily be turned into video games, it's quite refreshing to come across a warm, human and organic American drama that makes you think and feel without catering to the lowest common denominator.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
This is Where We Live
Noah (Marc Menchaca), a handyman, arrives at a countryside home in the small town of Llano, Texas. He agrees to help Diane (C K McFarland) by taking care of her adult son, Auggie (Tobias Segal), who's suffering from cerebral palsy. Diane's husband has memory problems probably caused by dementia while her lazy daughter, Lainey (Frances Shaw), idles around the house smoking and drinking. Clearly, that family is dysfunctional and has many issues, some of which seem deeply-rooted.
Co-writers/directors Josh Barrett and Marc Menchaca do a decent job of maintaining a melancholic mood and pathos from start to finish. This is Where We Live is the kind of drama where a lot boils beneath its surface, but doesn't fully rise to the top. In other words, it requires a patient, attentive audience member who appreciates nuance and understatement, two traits that are rarely found in American cinema these days. One could even say that this film feel old-fashioned and timeless in way.
The performances are natural and believable without going over-the-top. Most importantly, though, Barrett and Menchaca should be commended for portraying someone with a disability realistically and respectfully---the recent doc CinemAbility would probably consider this as an example of a positive portrayal of the disabled. Sure, the film is rather dark and depressing, but so what? Those kind of films are usually more interesting, memorable and deep than light-hearted fare. You'll feel quietly moved by the budding friendship between Noah and Auggie which in itself feels warm, tender and, above all, compassionate.
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