It’s no news that a filmmaker’s debut is ninety minutes mostly consisting of a couple of kids gabbing on the streets of Brooklyn. But writer-director Jay Dockendorf’s buoyant, tragic, richly textured walking-and-talking job Naz & Maalik exhibits none of the shambling narcissism that so often characterizes such projects. Its leads play two first- generation African-American Muslim teens, but its focus is on the way they navigate the city, their families, their faith, and their love for each other — both Naz and Maalik are young men, and we join them on the day after their first night of sexual intimacy. They’re closeted, of course, in their homes and in their mosque, both of which we visit: An imam opens a Friday prayer service with “If you’re here with the NYPD, or if you’re here with the FBI, welcome.” His hope? That anyone putting his community under surveillance might instead find enlightenment.
Naz and Maalik won’t skip prayer, but they’re not exactly devout. And on the streets they’re different, freer than anyplace but the shut-door security of their own bedrooms — outside, they’re free even of their fears of what they might get back up to when totally alone. In loose, lively scenes we follow them up and down Atlantic Avenue, where they hustle the crowds, selling scented oils (“You wanna smell good while you work hard, so I got smell-good for you!”), snacks, and lotto tickets that Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) has paired up with Catholic prayer cards. He’s selling the American impulse packed into one priceless score: a chance at divinity and a chance at some bucks, all, he says, to help him pay for college. He and Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.) both relish fast talk, as do their customers, who pay in part for the performance — nobody believes these kids when they claim their oils were given to them by Barack Obama, but when they say, “Smell like hope!” who wouldn’t be tempted to peel off a couple of dollars?
But that imam’s right to be calling out law enforcement. Early on, a white man accosts Naz and Maalik on the street, offering to sell them a gun; turns out the man is FBI, and he and his partner talk themselves into believing that the boys warrant further investigation. The gun scene is strong, with the boys’ discomfort giving way to fascination and the man, grubbily attired, at first appearing to be one of the many real-life street extras who happened to be out during filming. But a second FBI agent (Annie Grier) becomes the film’s through line — and the center of its only unconvincing moments. It’s not hard to believe Naz and Maalik might get questioned, frisked, and harassed, but the agent is so clueless that her scenes sink toward parody, especially as she mistakes their real secret for something nefarious. (Another false note: A hipster gentrifier eager to get the boys up to his apartment collects Beanie Babies and calls New York “the mecca of meeting new people.”)
Those encounters, fussed-over and over-scripted, are at odds with the rest of the film. It’s loose and rousing, fleet in its naturalistic portraiture. Its metabolism aligns with that of its charismatic young stars, and it’s cut at the pace of their adventures: spirited montage when peddling their wares, moody longer takes when they stride through a park. The city around them is sharp-edged and unrehearsed, an unsettled space in which Naz and Maalik can both showboat and hide themselves, which often amount to the same thing. They chatter, arrestingly, about how money shapes the city, about how terrorism shapes their lives, about how cultures must be respected, even as they stitch at the edges of several. “Man, that’s an appropriation!” Maalik exclaims when Naz buys those saint cards.
The film’s truest tension comes when Maalik, the more certain of the two, attempts, in the privacy of public spaces, to ease Naz into an embrace or a backrub. Even outside their neighborhood, where nobody passing by would care or even notice, Naz must shake him off: His fear is deeper than just that of being discovered. Some drama involving a chicken to be killed according to the dictates of halal confuses the final reels, but for most of its running time this is more than the usual slice of life: It’s a healthy chunk of it, rich in incident and character. The finest moments come when Dockendorf examines the boys’ code-switching, the way the selves they present change with the situations that they’re called upon to navigate. But they never diverge too much — Naz and Maalik have each other, and they’ve got the city. Despite the feds’ harassment, there’s every reason to hope that the latter will give the boys the freedom to claim the former.
Naz & Maalik
Written and directed by Jay Dockendorf
Opens January 22, Cinema Village
Available on demand