A discovery at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, In Between hails from Israel, and is one of the best recent films to come out of that country, or anywhere for that matter. It works as both a cri de coeur and the movie equivalent of a page-turner.
It also joins a very small amorphous subgenre: the roomie movie. (If road trips have their own category, so should movies about disparate inhabitants forced by circumstances to live together.) It features three interwoven storylines, each centered on a roommate, all told with clarity and steadily building urgency. In addition, each part of the whole features extremely personal choices, which can’t help but become defiantly political.
It would be a disservice to the film to categorize any of its three young Palestinian women who share an apartment in downtown Tel Aviv. First of all, they don’t emerge as types. Director Maysaloun Hamoud establishes the relationships from the get-go, but it’s not until midway that it becomes clear that Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is from a Christian family, or what her sexual orientation is.
If any of the trio appears as a stereotype, Hamoud smashes preconceived notions. She places the women’s choices, how they pursue independence while having to face or reject blowback from lovers and conservative families, in the specific milieu of contemporary Israel. In confronting the question of whether the three can have it all—or even a little—the film joins a growing list of cinematic portrayals of Arab-Israeli women, which includes Udi Aloni’s Junction 48.
In the opening sequence, Laila (Mouna Hawa) is introduced snorting coke with her friends (most of whom are male) at a club in which Salma deejays. Laila, who is gorgeous and a lawyer working within the Israeli legal system, drinks to the “end of singlehood” with her companions, though one assumes she would have little difficulty in reaching that goal herself. She has options, though she has rejected a handsome Jewish lawyer because his mother would never accept her.
When Laila and Salma first meet their new roommate, Nour (Shaden Kanboura), she’s in a traditional chador. Laila is still wearing a skintight, black mini with a mesh bodice from the night before. It’s a dress that could be found in any Kardashian closet. But the comedy of contrasts inherit in this scenario is secondary to what unfolds: Nour is as equally perplexed by her new roommates as they are of her, so much so that Salma has to assure her that she and Laila don’t bite.
As their lives together intertwine, Laila starts dating the blue-eyed hipster Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby), and Salma begins a relationship that her parents, who arranged a marriage for her, wouldn’t approve of at all. Meanwhile, Nour delays her marriage to Wissam (Henry Andrawes), who’s in charge of an Islamic charitable society, ostensibly to continue her education. She turns down his offer to move back to their hometown, claiming it’s too far away. However, he suspects that she may have fallen under the influence of her roommates, who he castigates as “impure.”
Though there are moments of lightness, this is no Arabic Sex & the City; it goes to darker places. For a moment, the film almost falls into the trap of portraying the Palestinian men as hard-hearted hypocrites, ham-fisted enforcers of the patriarchy. That is, until one male takes a different path. On the technical side, the cinematography is a smooth example of hand-held camerawork.
Tough and touching, this intimate gem would play well in theaters or on any platform. It would also be a must-see at any festival spotlighting the diversity of the region; New York’s Other Israel Festival immediately springs to mind.