While films and TV series about the trials and tribulations of female friends living, loving, and working in a big city may be fairly common (“Sex and the City” and “Girls” to name a couple), Arab-Israeli writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud refreshes the genre’s tropes with her energetic feature debut “In Between.” What makes this spiky dramedy so compelling are the Palestinian-Israeli protagonists, whose split lives have rarely been depicted on screen. These strong, modern, sexually active women, living independently in the center of Tel Aviv, away from their families and the weight of tradition, struggle to be true to themselves when confronting the expectations of others. With many hooks for promotion, this engrossing tale should have a strong festival career; niche art-house life is possible in some territories.
Equally fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and dressing in a way that makes them completely indistinguishable from their Jewish contemporaries, ultra-chic lawyer Layla (seductively played by the striking Mouna Hawa) and her flat-mate, lesbian disc jockey Salma (Sana Jammelieh), are part of a Palestinian cultural underground scene. They party until the wee hours at clubs with kick-ass music and partake of drink and drugs with a set of bohemian friends. Salma adopts a more submissive persona when dutifully visiting her conservative Christian family, whose members all believe that she is a music teacher and continue to invite potential suitors over for dinner. On the other hand, realist Layla, who refuses to compromise her lifestyle and remains separate from her family, neatly nixes the romantic attentions of a Jewish attorney, saying, “let’s keep our flirtation fun.”
When good Muslim girl Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a hijabi graduate student from a small village, comes to occupy the third bedroom in Layla and Salma’s apartment, the stage would seem to be set for confrontation, but Hamoud defies expectations by showing the developing sisterhood between all the roommates. Not only do they have in common the uneasy status of being Arab-Israelis (and thus “other”) in a predominantly Jewish society, but they share the problem of finding the right, supportive, understanding romantic partner.
Nour’s hypocritical fiancé Wissam (Henry Andrawes) doesn’t understand why she wants to continue her studies and go on to work. He believes that eventually she will stay home, run their household, and mother their children. Diametrically, as Nour’s perspectives on the world broaden due to her exposure to Layla, Salma, and their friends, Wissam’s continue to narrow. He accuses Nour of being a whore like her roommates, and, shockingly, treats her like one.
While working as a bartender, Salma meets an attractive young doctor named Dunya (Ahlam Canaan) and they embark on an affair. But she can’t resist playing with fire and brings her new girlfriend to her parents’ place during the unveiling of yet another potential husband.
Meanwhile, when Layla meets handsome filmmaker Ziad (Mahmoud Shalaby, “A Bottle in the Gaza Sea”), sparks fly and her heart sings for the first time in ages. But Ziad, despite having lived abroad and having a penchant for drink and drugs, can’t completely escape his conservative roots. He’s embarrassed to introduce the sexily dressed Layla to his village-dwelling sister and he criticizes her nonstop cigarette smoking.
Hamoud’s clever, nuanced screenplay offers a critique of traditional, patriarchal Palestinian society, threatened by modernity, feminine power, and the court of public opinion. It also highlights the casual racism of Israeli-Jewish society toward Arabs, from the people on the street who might shy away from a woman in a headscarf to the snarky manager at the restaurant where Salma works who yells at the kitchen staff for speaking to each other in Arabic.
While the entire cast is aces, the three leads, and the chemistry among them, are especially fine; they poignantly convey the sense of living “in between” and the toll that it takes on their lives. Cinematographer Itay Gross shows the freedom and vibrancy of the women’s Tel Aviv life with bright colors and wide open spaces in contrast to the dull colors and claustrophobic spaces of village life. The rousing original score by MG Saad and precision cutting of Lev Goldser and Nili Feller keep things pacey.
“In Between” marks this year’s second Israeli production by an Arab-Israeli female director, following the Cannes “Un Certain Regard”-selected “Personal Affairs” by Maha Haj.