An entertaining tale about tolerance with a capital T, “Coldwater” (frequently called by its original title “Sabah”) comes dangerously close to being a Syrian “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Here traditional Muslims are the closed family to which the mousy Sabah (beautifully played by Arsinee Khanjian) timidly introduces her good-looking Canadian beau. The culture clash is greater and more pertinent to world news than in “Greek Wedding,” giving the film a timely quality but also a feeling of obviousness. An audience pleaser, this brightly colored pic with educational intentions could do some business with skillful marketing before finding its niche on ancillary.
Sabah lives in Toronto, where her Syrian family moved some 20 years earlier. Covered from head to foot in a beige chador, she is quite a contrast to the summery-dressed girls on the street. Her conservative family dominates her life: from the mother she lives with and takes care of, to her bossy brother Majid who doles out the money drop by drop. At 40, she is dismissed as an old maid who will always do their bidding.
But when she treats herself to a trip to the local indoor swimming pool, she meets single, red-haired carpenter Stephen (Shawn Doyle). After much hesitation she accepts his lunch invitation, and romance blooms. Sabah keeps her family in the dark. She uses her hip teenage niece Soheir as an excuse to duck out and meet him.
At last she is forced to brave the anger of her family and their threatened ostracism to stand up for her love. Turnaround ending, though comically inevitable, seems dramatically forced considering the hard line the family has drawn previously.
Director Ruba Nadda, a prolific short filmmaker, carefully calibrates the story to show not only the harsh, conservative side of Islam, personified in Majid’s macho posturing, but also breakaway elements like Soheir’s refusal to be part of an arranged marriage and a sister-in-law’s illicit affair. The sensuality of these women is underlined in comic moments of Oriental dancing and in their choice of indoor costumes, which can be quite revealing.
Khanjian bravely sports a homely look for most of the film, reflecting Sabah’s inner oppression. Her final liberation at Stephen’s side is symbolically visualized in a red dress and flowing hair. If there is a touch of the sit-com in Nadda’s choice of images, Khanjian brings strength and conviction to Sabah’s slow process of inner change.
Doyle is a worthy suitor, whose natural reactions to the surprises in their relationship make him a measuring stick for the family’s off-centeredness. Supporting cast veers toward caricature and is more amusing than real, as is the subplot of Soheir falling for the very boy she has refused to marry.
Lenser Luc Montpellier gives the film an attractive, brightly colored look.