Navigating several patches of narrative turbulence on the sheer strength of Melissa Leo’s lead performance, writer-director Travis Fine’s “The Space Between” brings together opposites — a cranky, cussing flight attendant and a devoutly Muslim 10-year-old boy — to press a message of cultural unity and emotional healing in the wake of 9/11. The problems of a highly contrived setup are somewhat neutralized by a hard-working cast and a fixed dramatic focus, but pic will bypass theatrical play for a USA Network cable preem.
Given the premise, the mere fact that Fine keeps the film from becoming too maudlin is an achievement in itself, even as he strains to make all the narrative parts click into place. The early signs are of a “Crash”-like scenario, as the film cuts between a difficult day in the life of crusty, lonely attendant Montine (Leo) and scenes of young, Gotham-based Omar (Anthony Keyvan), whose academic brilliance makes him a prime candidate for a top-flight Islamic school in Los Angeles.
Omar’s taxi-driving dad, Maliq (Phillip Rhys), resists the offer at first, since it would mean being separated from his son, but circumstances change and arrangements are made for Omar’s trip. Meanwhile, Montine’s unprofessional sassiness with a passenger has put her on probation. Naturally, Omar is placed under her care upon boarding the plane, and in a fit of childish pique, he hides himself in the restroom during the flight.
When Omar finally comes out, he finds an empty plane and distraught attendants, with Montine suddenly forced to baby-sit. Only when we’re shown TV images of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing is it clear that the date is Sept. 11, sending Montine into a moral dilemma. Her subsequent actions hardly compute, including her failure to inform her superiors that she’s impulsively bought bus tickets to L.A. for the two of them.
The central thread of “The Space Between” involves Montine softening her hard exterior around Omar, and Omar learning to accommodate the older woman’s irreverence (and alcoholism). This dynamic is pushed to a more melodramatic level when circumstances necessitate that Montine pay a visit to brother Will (Brad William Henke) and his bratty teen daughter, Sam (Annasophia Robb). Will, a devout though nontraditional Christian minister, has a heart-to-heart with Omar, who wonders why God allows bad things to happen, and it seems as if the film’s entire midsection has been building to this moment.
Montine’s role, though originally conceived for Whoopi Goldberg, is a perfect fit for Leo, as well as a challenge for the actress to explore a full spectrum of emotions and tones. Even moreso than in “Frozen River,” Leo displays her impressive capacity for anger, surprising wit, blue-collar irony and tragedy, though that tragic note reps the film’s poorest dramatic idea. Keyvan is a worthy match, and supporting work is fine.
The modestly budgeted road movie is staged with handsome production values, fortified by Tom Cross’ patient editing scheme.