Two young Muslim men balance their mutual romantic attraction with life in post-9/11 Brooklyn in “Naz & Maalik.” The provocative-sounding feature debut of writer-director Jay Dockendorf earns points for unique subject matter, only to squander its potential on an innocuously blase hangout narrative. Additional fest play following a SXSW bow is a given, and the central hook is specific enough to attract modest attention in certain niches of the indie theatrical and VOD marketplace.
The film opens at the point when reserved Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and outgoing Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.) have formally taken their friendship to the next level, though the religious teens have yet to declare their sexuality to family or friends. They make money by buying lottery tickets, oils and other small items from a local convenience store and hawking them on the streets for a profit. When an innocent encounter with an undercover cop selling guns catches the attention of a FBI agent (Annie Grier) new to Bed-Stuy, Naz and Maalik find themselves under an unusual level of scrutiny, their covert amorous encounters only serving to heighten the suspicions of an outside observer.
Inspired by Dockendorf’s interviews with Muslims — including some closeted gays — who experienced FBI surveillance in New York after 9/11, what’s onscreen here feels observed rather than lived-in. The influence of Spike Lee’s early portraits of urban life and Richard Linklater’s laidback relationship stories looms large, though the writing and acting lacks the sort of color and complexity necessary to justify the comparisons.
The intense focus on the two lead characters emerges as both a strength and a weakness. There’s a lot of walking and talking, and what begins as rather charming ultimately turns tedious, even with a fleet 80-minute running time before closing credits factor in.
The rigorously understated approach avoids delving too deep into family lives, religious habits (aside from a lone trip to a mosque), political views or sexuality, instead skimming the surface of anything that might increase viewer interest or connection with the characters. Taken as a whole, “Naz & Maalik” is more of a curiosity piece than a magnet for any sort of discourse, let alone controversy.
Standout element of a so-so tech package is Jake Magee’s free-flowing camerawork, which proves equally adept at placing the viewer directly inside the protagonists’ most intimate moments or providing elegant wide shots of the urban environs. Sound mix occasionally renders dialogue partially inaudible, especially in sequences shot on the New York subway.