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“Men don’t like women who raise their voices,” a matriarch says as she waxes a crying, younger woman’s legs in the opening scene of Arab Israeli director Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between. She continues her litany of misguided wisdom: “In bed, do what he tells you.” From this we cut immediately to a group of Arab youth in the midst of a throbbing wedding party, the women snorting Ritalin and definitely raising their voices as they toast the end of a friend’s singledom. As the title suggests, the characters of Hamoud’s film live somewhere between these extremes — between tradition and independence, obligation and abandon.
They’re in between geographically, too. The film follows three young Palestinian women living together in an apartment in Tel Aviv: lawyer and party animal Laila (Mouna Hawa) and DJ-chef-bartender Salma (Sana Jammelieh) are close friends whose tastes and attitudes mostly align, but into their lives comes Nur (Shaden Kanboura), a hijab-wearing, modest student from a conservative family. Her shy, nervous glances at their lifestyle speak not so much to her judgment, but to her curiosity. Together, the trio start to bond in unlikely ways.
In its broad strokes, In Between offers a somewhat predictable set of beats: Nur’s dour, Hadith-quoting fiancé, who looks down on Laila and Salma, quickly turns out to be a repellent fellow. Laila herself finds romance with a somewhat more open-minded Muslim man, who proves his shortcomings more slowly and subtly. Salma, meanwhile, learns the limits of her wealthy, liberal Christian family’s supposed tolerance. But Hamoud’s three bright actresses bring such a sense of authenticity to their roles that this all feels new. All too often films about these sorts of culture clashes feature performers who overdo their characters’ free-spirited ways, as if those who challenge some societal expectations must live in a state of perpetual confrontational hedonism. But here, it’s understated, mundane. Laila and Salma’s lives are their lives; their behavior is not a polemic.
This lived-in quality to the performances and milieu serve the film well. That, combined with Hamoud’s unhurried, restrained visual style, allows for tension, emotion, and meaning to build together. In some ways, In Between is more notable for what it isn’t: There’s little mention made here of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a restaurant manager berates the Arab chefs and kitchen workers for speaking their own language, noting that it makes patrons uncomfortable), and what little overt politics come up exist largely in the personal sphere. That feels familiar, and true. In Between is a movie not so much about suffering as it is about the grinding reality of just being. These are ordinary women living their ordinary lives, trying to carve out a place for themselves while navigating the expectations of different worlds. Their solidarity is not national, or cultural, but intimate.
Directed by Maysaloun Hamoud
Opens January 5, Landmark Sunshine