Kurdish-born, Swedish-based helmer Karzan Kader expands the idea behind his award-winning short “Bekas” into a homonymous feature, but padding out the story ends up detracting from the charm. The biggest drawback lies in how Kader directs his kiddie stars, especially the younger one, whose gratingly strident voice has zero modulation. If it weren’t for the screechiness, “Bekas” would be a handsome if derivative tot-centric pic about two Kurdish orphans wanting to go to America to meet Superman; as is, the annoyance level wipes away much of the appeal, though the recent Swedish release has seen decent returns.
Kader appears to have imbibed from the “Cinema Paradiso” cup, investing rather too much in the sentimentality behind a honeyed evocation of the projector’s throw as seen through a child’s eyes. It’s 1990 in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Dana (Sarwal Fazil) and his younger brother, Zana (Zamand Taha), are orphans (“bekas” in Kurdish). They’ve just seen “Superman” at the cinema — or rather, part of it, since they’re caught watching from the roof and given a wallop by the manager. Inspired by the superhero and with no home of their own, they decide to go to America, which Dana says is just a few days’ ride away.
Their timing is lousy, since Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish policies have turned the region into a hostile military zone. By chance they run into Osman (Abdulrahman Mohamad), who was once a freedom fighter along with the kids’ late father. He promises to help them cross the border, but the road is dangerous, and fellow smuggler Jamal (Shirwan Muhamad) is less than sympathetic.
Kader looks to generate a Huck Finn vibe, crafting a road trip fraught with literal and psychic danger, in which values such as brotherhood and home play a major role. The impact would have been stronger, however, had the helmer been less concerned with making a slick, syrupy epic for Western auds and spent more time tempering his cadences. Right from the opening, when the kids are playing soccer, the over-vigorous camerawork tries too hard for an almost “Mission: Impossible” feel, and subsequent sequences, with sweeping crane shots arriving exactly when expected, reduce the pic’s beating heart to an overscrubbed simulacrum.
An additional flaw is the way practically everyone these tots meet whacks them at the drop of a hat. This is especially noticeable when they finally cross into Arab-speaking territory (the Syrian border, presumably) and the people Zana begs for help all beat him rather than try to understand what he needs. His ear-splitting squawks certainly don’t make him lovable, but surely everyone isn’t like Huck Finn’s Pap.
Dialogue is delivered too cleanly, with each boy waiting for the other to finish a sentence before speaking — the opposite of how children talk. Johan Holmqvist’s grandiose, invariably golden-hued lensing turns the story into a greeting-card version of the orphans’ plight; the schmaltzy music comes as no surprise.