An appealing coming-of-ager about three Indonesian schoolboys contemplating life in the lead-up to final exams, “Pesantren” evenhandedly tackles religious and social issues affecting Islamic youth and is easily accessible to a wide audience. Helmer Nurman Hakim’s engaging debut boasts well-drawn characters and should make reasonable inroads on the fest circuit following its world preem at Pusan. Casting of popular performer Dian Sastrowardoyo as a sexy singer will provide a marketing boost on Dec. 18 local release.
Living in a pesantren (Islamic boarding school) in Lempuyangan, central Java, inseparable friends Huda (Nicholas Saputra), Syahid (Yoga Bagus Satatagama) and Rian (Yoga Pratama) are receiving mixed messages from instructors. Moderate headmaster Kyai Wahib (Brohisman) believes Jews and Christians should not be viewed as enemies, while Ustadz (Doubleh Zulkanean) stops just short of actively recruiting soldiers for the holy war. His fiery words make an impression on Syahid, whose gravely ill father has been forced to sell his land cheaply to an unscrupulous Western buyer.
Huda and Rian are less concerned with religious matters. A sensitive boy who wants only to find his missing mother in Jakarta, Huda is attracted to Dona Satelit (Sastrowardoyo), the alluring vocalist in a touring rock combo. Offering to help Huda, the girl asks for expenses that first appear to be going into her own pocket. In an unexpected and satisfying turnaround, this proves to be far from the case.
For his part, Rian dreams of honoring his late father by following his footsteps into the film and video business. In heartwarming scenes, he finds a teacher and father figure in Toha (Butet Kartaredjasa), a traveling movie exhibitor camped at the same fairground as Dona Satelit.
With gentle humor and a strong feel for the excitement and trepidation that accompany entry into adulthood, the screenplay ramps up in later stages when it’s revealed that everything seen thus far has taken place in the days prior to 9/11. A video camera used by the boys to document important moments suddenly comes into focus in the wake of the attack; threads are neatly wrapped up in the film’s bittersweet epilogue.
Though pic could easily be trimmed by 10 minutes, natural perfs by the main trio and a sparky turn by Sastrowardoyo help overcome the slowish spots. Tech package is simple and effective.