Three Dutch boys of Maghrebi origin travel by car from the Low Countries to Morocco in "Rabat," a road movie that gently moves from cliches to more nuanced characterization.

Three Dutch boys of Maghrebi origin travel by car from the Low Countries to Morocco in “Rabat,” a road movie that gently moves from cliches to more nuanced characterization. Feature debut by Dutch musicvid helmers Jim Taihuttu and Victor Ponten starts off conventionally but slowly finds its footing, with the film’s tone finally moving between gentle comedy and more serious material. Modest independent production is well acted and looks fine, and was an unexpected local crowdpleaser, bagging a picture nomination at the Netherlands’ national film awards, as well as an actor win for charismatic lead Nasrdin Dchar.

Opening at a Muslim wedding in Amsterdam, the pic quickly sketches the friendship of buddies Abdel (Achmed Akkabi), from Tunisia; soccer fanatic Zakaria (Marwan Kenzari), of Moroccan origin; and the slightly older Nadir (Dchar), who is driving his father’s 15-year-old taxi to the titular city in Morocco. All three were born or spent most of their lives in the Netherlands, though each one clearly grew up between two cultures.

At the crack of dawn the next day, Nadir gets ready for the 1,900-mile drive across Europe and finds that his friends have decided to join him, immediately complicating what should have been a simple delivery job. It’s clear from the start Nadir hasn’t been entirely honest with his mates about the real reasons for this long journey.

Their trip is initially episodic; each country they pass through is conveniently captioned onscreen, and each stop introduces a new character or situation that is then quickly disposed of. In Gaul, a sweet old lady mistakes them for actual taxi drivers, leading to a cute but prolonged scene in which they drive her home. Not much later, the three pick up an equally sweet, though much younger and sexier, passenger (Stephane Caillard) who’s headed for Barcelona.

It’s in the Spanish section that “Rabat” really finds it footing, toying with auds’ expectations as the Muslim boys encounter a few gay men, and some physical violence is thrown into the mix. Rather than conforming to facile stereotypes or settling for an equally facile can’t-we-just-all-get-along vibe, the pic chooses a wonderfully observant stance that finally reveals its protagonists as flawed but very real individuals.

Helmers Taihuttu (himself partly of Maluku extraction) and Ponten also wrote the screenplay, and they avoid easy generalizations about immigrant kids, perfectly setting up the film’s bittersweet final stretch. Shot in sequence, the film quickly gains in poignancy as the titular destination comes into view, a hilarious detour involving a crazy Moroccan who runs a junkyard notwithstanding.

In keeping with generally sober, no-frills approach and tone, tech package and acting keep things natural. Charismatic and pensive Dchar (“Tirza,” “Lotus”) is indeed the standout, though at least in part because he has the meatiest role. Bit parts are all perfectly cast.

Pic was shot without Dutch Film Fund or TV money, with the directors’ own production company Habbekrats (a slang word that means “Next to Nothing”) putting up a good part of the budget, reportedly just over $400,000.

Rabat

Netherlands

Production

A Benelux Film Distributors release of a Habbekrats presentation and production, in association with Inspire Pictures, Lebowski Publishers, Top Notch, Fei Prods., Likeminds. Produced by Julius Ponten, Frieder Wallis. Directed, written by Jim Taihuttu, Victor Ponten.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Lennart Verstegen; editor, Wouter van Luijn; music, Joris Titawano, Gino Taihuttu; production designer, Lieke Scholman; costume designer, Lee Stuart; sound, Michael Sauvage. Reviewed at Netherlands Film Festival (competing), Sept. 27, 2011. Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Nasrdin Dchar, Achmed Akkabi, Marwan Kenzari, Slimane Dazi, Jaqueline Bir, Stephane Caillard, Mohamed Majd, Zakaria Tamadou, Mohammed Benbrahim, Nadia Kounda, Ahmed Gnaoui, Daniel Caballero, Marc Garcia. (Dutch, Moroccan Arabic, French, Spanish, English dialogue)

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