DETROIT UNLEADED C+
USA (90 mi) 2012 ‘Scope d: Rola Nashef Official site
While there is a shortage of Arab-American films, and far fewer (if nonexistent) comedies, so this Lebanese-American film is in a world by itself, expanding and developing her earlier short film by the same name in 2007. Writer/director/producer Rola Nashef was born in Lebanon where her earliest childhood memories are of the civil war conflict before her family moved to America. Growing up in Lansing, Michigan, the population was integrated between blacks, whites, Arabs, Mexicans, and other Hispanic groups, where the prevalence of jobs in the auto industry created a melting pot. When her family moved to Detroit, she was stunned to find it more segregated, but despite the ghetto image, Detroit is becoming more multicultural, where there’s a prevalence of Arab men working behind bulletproof glass cages in gas stations, and where the director contends “It’s still the cheapest place to make a movie.” While the common perception is one of racial hostility between the Arab and black communities, Nashef’s experience is far different from the stereotype perpetuated by an angry, racist-tinged Clint Eastwood in GRAN TORINO (2008). Perhaps her younger age has something to do with it, as this is a film about people whose lives are still in front of them. Its predecessor may be another film written and directed by a Palestinian-American woman, Cherian Dabis in AMREEKA (2009), a family drama that explores both the existing prejudices in the Middle East and in coming to America, yet its warmhearted spirit filled with lovable characters elevates the material and drew plenty of praise. In much the same way, Nashef has drawn an intricate character study of intersecting lives, all coming together in the holy grail of a mini-mart gas station. In Chicago, at least, the Goodman Theater put on a theatrical stage production in 2008 of Brett Neveu’s play Gas for Less, Review: Gas For Less: Chicagoist, where the action takes place in a similar setting, but it’s interesting to see how one tragically exhibits fading dreams, like the end of an era, while the other uses comedic interactions to pick up on the idea of a new beginning.
The film’s opening prologue shows gas at only $1.93 a gallon, something of a time capsule in itself, but also a friendly Lebanese-American gas station owner Ibrahim (Akram El-Ahmar) that engages with his customers, seen in an era before the plexiglass where he’s out in the open sharing his hopes and dreams for a better life in America, proud to have a son that wants to go to college in California. But he’s tragically shot and killed in a robbery, where his son Sami (E. J. Assi) resentfully foregoes college to run his father’s business, actually located near East Grand Boulevard and Woodward, where gas prices now hover over $4.00 a gallon and the station has been equipped with plexiglass, where Sami is stuck for long hours working behind a thick and ugly protective glass cage. As the station is open 24/hrs a day, he shares a daily shift with his cousin Mike (Mike Bateyeh), a guy who dreams that he and Sami will eventually own dozens of gas stations. Mike is hugely ambitious to the point of being manic, something of a hustler where he fills the back of the cage with various crap he buys from mostly black street vendors thinking they can make a few extra bucks. Hardly a social critique, more along the lines of Kevin Smith’s CLERKS (1994), the film instead relies upon a steady stream of diverse customers, each bringing their own personalities into play, where the rhythm of the film is generated by these sudden faces that appear in front of the glass, where some are regular customers, others may be over-excited kids that are stoned, with each thankfully breaking a cycle of neverending boredom. A running gag throughout the film is a feud with an unseen neighboring gas station owned by another Arab relative, where the competition is always luring customers with cheap deals or fancy cappuccino coffee machines. But Sami’s world changes when Mike’s attractive and brash talking cousin Najlah (Nada Shouhayib) walks in selling phone cards, bringing her behind the cage to wait for Mike to show up, where a little awkward small talk leads to an initial attraction, but Naj insists no one can know about it, as she doesn’t want to be the talk of family gossip where all they talk about is who’s seeing who.
Unlike the gabby and ever cheerful Mike who loves the job and takes an interest in all the customers, Sami is quieter, sitting sullenly behind the glass, rarely befriending any of the customers, where only visits from Naj seem to perk him up. From the outset, it’s clear neither Mike nor Naj’s overprotective brother Fadi (Steven Soro), who can be forcefully bullying at times, approve of this relationship, as she’s in a higher economic bracket where better things are expected for her, so the entire developing relationship takes place in secret behind the glass without ever going out on a date, where he brings her behind the cage and they simply talk to each other. One of the things this director gets right is she has an ear for the breezy rhythm of naturalistic dialogue, creating believable, if underdeveloped, characters who are amusing throughout, accentuating a cultural dynamic of how this couple is so challenged to actually be with each other, where part of the fun is seeing just how it all plays out. One of the better scenes is when Naj and her girlfriends go out clubbing in skimpy party dresses, but the night is short circuited when Fadi shows up, so a quick escape leaves them with few options, one of which is paying a visit to her “gas station guy.” With the others still waiting in the car overreacting to everything they see, Sami is awestruck by what he sees, as to him, she’s mesmerizingly beautiful, a stunning contrast to what he’s used to seeing in the store. When he chances a kiss, she’ll have none of it, claiming she’s not that kind of girl, leaving him puzzled and bewildered, while silently displaying her own confusion and inner conflict. The film loses an opportunity to explore what’s underneath many of the mostly black customers, where one grows curious about any progression in developing attitudes about their Middle-Eastern counterparts, but there’s also a longstanding customer that goes back to the era of Sami’s father who provides a certain stability and dramatic heft to the narrative, as he’s representative of the changing neighborhood outside where people are going through hard times. While the film may be overly optimistic and naively upbeat, where some of the quirky characters with their eccentric behavior are somewhat cliché’d, the film was actually more interesting when it was a comic struggle just to see one another, intriguing even when nothing was happening, turning predictably conventional by the end, like a fairy tale ending, but at least it stakes out new territory.