An unmotivated guy flunking out of college finds his political voice in Sameh Zoabi’s uneven yet generally appealing debut, “Man Without a Cell Phone.” Though nowhere near as strong as Eran Riklis’ “Lemon Tree,” the pic covers similar territory in a light comic vein, tracking the awakening of a Palestinian slacker in Israel to the injustice of land grabs and racial profiling. Genial newcomer Razi Shawahdeh as the lead helps paper over too-obvious dialogue and a lack of dramatic tension, turning “Cell Phone” into moderately pleasant fare suitable for fest sidebars.
All Jawdat (Shawahdeh) really wants to do is meet girls and chat with friends on his cell phone, but instead, he’s working with cousin Muhammad (Louai Nofi) in a concrete factory and listening to his father Salem (Bassem Loulou) rail against the way even Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are treated as second-class residents.
Things escalate when Jawdat fails his Hebrew exam, loses his latest girlfriend and gets interrogated by cops who’ve been monitoring his politically innocent phone calls to girls in the West Bank. Finally motivated to fight back, he joins forces with his father and the townspeople in protest against a cell-phone tower, adjacent to Salem’s olive grove, whose radio waves are believed to be making the locals sick.
While treating these topics seriously, Zoabi sticks to a gently humorous approach in a bid to set his pic apart from the increasing number of issue-driven Palestinian features. It’s a largely successful balance, with a few laugh-out-loud moments whose comic elements don’t devalue the seriousness of the situation: A scene in which Jawdat is refused entry to a “save the bees” party in a kibbutz is a fine example of the helmer getting it absolutely right.
Other situations, however, don’t quite live up to that one’s success, and the script needs tightening: Relationships tend toward the simplistic, while dialogue and its delivery require more spark. D.p. Hicham Alaouie creates a much greater sense of casual intimacy than anything seen in his collaborations with Joachim Lafosse, utilizing the flexibility and lightness of HD to further Zoabi’s push toward amiability with a message.