A graphic indictment of the physical and psychic horrors of female genital mutilation as well as an uncommonly frank depiction of an extremely patriarchal Arab-American family set Varun Khanna’s “Beyond Honor” apart. Though it can’t hide occasionally crude dramatics, pic is an undeniably bold and daring tragedy. Mumbai-born, Los Angeles-based Khanna points his lens at an immigrant culture other than his own, one colored by post-9/11 Yank antipathy. Inevitable controversy could cut both ways, either attracting eager fest and distrib interest or scaring away all comers.
Latter, though, would be a tragedy in itself, since “Honor” is something of a landmark film on the indie landscape, as well as a programming coup for the Palm Springs fest, which stresses foreign cinema and tends to cede significant indie titles to Sundance and Slamdance (both of which rejected pic).
The heated topicality of the medieval-style female abuse suffered by the smart, med-student daughter of an Arab father, plus the film’s highly pressurized storytelling delivered by a committed ensemble make up for some obvious flaws, which seem insignificant in retrospect.
The narrative’s slow, sometimes uneasy build hardly indicates the fireworks to come, but a brief prologue showing a little girl watching a goat being butchered at a farm lays out portentous hints.
That girl grows up to be attractive and intelligent med student Sahira Abdel-Karim (Ruth Osuna), who exists in both her parents’ traditional Islamic world — she wears head covering at school — and mainstream American life, with nice Anglo b.f. and fellow student Brian (Jason David Smith).
At the family’s home in a Southern California suburb, father Mohammed (Wadie Andrawis) rules, keeping American-born wife Noor (Laurel Melagrano) on a short leash, chiding son Samir (Ryan Izay) for his failings and demanding to escort Sahira to and from the university hospital during her ER internship. Unsettling factors seep into the film, from a set of off-putting “theater exercises” that instructor Dr. Woods (Carl Darchuk) requires of the med students, to Samir in his room with a porn mag snooping on Sahira as she dresses.
“Honor” patiently lays the groundwork for an intense mid-section that fully reveals the Abdel-Karim family members to be locked in a psychological prison from which none seems able to escape.
Noor must endure her husband’s obnoxious sexual rituals as part of her expected wifely duties. Also there is a gnawing suggestion that Samir desires his sister. That combined with the boy’s fear of his father turn him into a willing soldier to enforce “family honor” once Sahira is found to be dating non-Islamic Brian.
After a blood-curdling climax involving genital mutilation, Sahira’s drama escalates as she struggles to decide how to respond. The promise of a final confrontation is fulfilled, and along the way there are some complications that really set this family pot to full boil.
Perhaps not yet a thoroughly accomplished filmmaker, Khanna evinces purpose and determination, and an ability to gradually increase the narrative pressure until it’s nearly unbearable. Talking points abound, which shouldn’t take away from a focus on the game and only occasionally over-acting cadre of thesps who throw themselves into this emotional cauldron. Osuna creates a heart-wrenching portrait of Greek proportions, while Andrawis and Melagrano provide a study in marital hell.
Low-budget factors rarely impinge on this good-looking film, with only David Mann’s music going out of control.