As painfully ambiguous as the times we live in, “The Friend” charts a German college student’s growing suspicion his best friend may be a terrorist involved in 9/11. After a tedious start building up the boys’ lives and friendship, feature bow by Elmar Fischer becomes deeply engrossing in its second half, as the viewer learns of the hero’s anguish and doubts. Structured as it is, this very disturbing film may be difficult to show outside the festival circuit.
Pic treads a dangerously fine line in portraying Muslims simultaneously as nice guys who are often the victims of racism and as deadly emissaries of a foreign culture. Fischer seems sincere in grappling with this impenetrable mystery, no doubt echoing the fears and dismay of many viewers, but film could have looked a little deeper into underlying causes and perhaps found some answers.
Two Berlin university students, the outgoing Chris (Antonio Wannek) and sensitive Yunes (Navid Akhavan), share an apartment and develop a close friendship. Though born in Yemen, Yunes grew up in Germany and fits perfectly into his adopted society, apart from being the target of occasional racist remarks. He starts dating a pretty blonde girl, Nora (Mavie Horbiger), and they make a clean-cut foursome with Chris and his g.f. Julie (Mina Tander).
Only note of alarm in pic’s first half is sounded by a mysterious flashback to a few days before Sept. 11.
Yunes and Nora break up over a trifle (for her), which he takes as total betrayal. After this, he changes enormously, becoming religious for the first time and hanging out with a close-knit band of Muslim students who are all scowls and suspicious behavior.
The tension grows when he disappears into Pakistan. Chris is even more puzzled when he comes back and embraces a crassly Western way of life, including alcohol and casual sex, echoing warning bells about the orders terrorists were reportedly under to blend in with their neighbors.
Akhavan, a fine actor, portrays the terrible emotional cost of this farce even as he goes ahead with it. After his final disappearance, which coincides precisely with the World Trade Center disaster, Chris launches an anguishing private search for him, ending pic on a note of unresolved tension.
Casting of the four attractive young leads, who seem to have stepped out of a romantic teen comedy, pays off as the story spins into a dark nightmare and the carefree setup turns dark. Flashback structure, carefully devised to build tension by editor Antje Zynga, also makes sense by the end.
Both leads offer riveting interpretations of their characters: Wannek as the culturally curious German liberal ready to fight for his friend and follow his code of ethics to the end; Akhavan as a poetic youth whose life goes disastrously off track. However, as appealing as Akhavan is onscreen, Arabic speakers may be put off when noticing he isn’t a native speaker, nor does he look at all Yemeni.