Bridging one of the world’s defining sociopolitical rifts one 11-year-old at a time, quietly engaging indie “David” brings charm, sympathy and understatement to its microcosmic story of a young Muslim Brooklynite whose circumstances lead him to pass as Jewish. First feature for director/co-scenarist Joel Fendelman is a middleweight drama that wears its modesty to its advantage, lending a potentially contrived tale a solid grounding in docu-style location capture and the protag’s naive p.o.v. Sole U.S. entry in Montreal’s main competition has upbeat prospects for further fest travel, limited theatrical exposure and home-format sales.
Daud (Muatasem Mishal) is fortunate, perhaps, but also rather burdened in being the only son of devout, conservative imam Ahmed (Maz Jobrani), who takes his community and family responsibilities equally seriously. As a result, Daud is expected not just to do well in school, but also to tutor other children at the mosque. He has no apparent playmates, or any playtime for that matter.
Taking his little sister to the park one day, he notices a group of kids who accidentally leave a book behind. They follow the group to a yeshiva, where Daud balks, scared by his father’s casual pronouncement that “Jews don’t like Arabs.” Rather than enter, he simply drops the book in a mailbox outside, later realizing to his horror that he’s swapped his grandfather’s precious Koran with the other boy’s Talmud.
Stealing back into the school another day, he spies the tome on a rabbi’s desk, but before he can grab it, he gets swept into class as a presumably tardy student. Identifying himself as “David,” he keeps coming back, awaiting another opportunity to access the rabbi’s frequently locked office. Meanwhile, he’s fascinated by the boisterous, participatory methods of the teacher (Noam Wienberg) and delighted when some of the kids introduce him to basketball, and he soon gains his first best friend when an assignment pairs him with Yoav (Binyomin Shtaynberger). Inevitably, however, this innocent ruse is going to be exposed, and look very bad.
On another conflicted front, Daud’s older sister, Aishah (Dina Shihabi), wins a scholarship to study computer engineering at Stanford. But Ahmed is hardly about to let a daughter traipse off into a secular world 3,000 miles away.
Script by Fendelman and Patrick Daly has a few credibility gaps: Given how closely his time and responsibilities are monitored, it seems unlikely Daud’s parents (Gamze Ceylon plays the warm mother) wouldn’t notice his long absences much sooner. And it’s a bit of a stretch that outgoing Yoav would choose a best mate who’s fairly withdrawn and must be introduced to every game or pastime.
Nonetheless, “David’s” many small virtues add up to a winning whole, its message of cultural reconciliation presented sans preachiness, melodrama, easy answers or sweeping generalities. Non-pro juvenile performers are very good, while comedian Jobrani (best known as co-founder of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour) is excellent as the rather mirthless but well-intentioned dad. Kid’s-eye view of Gotham life is just right, design and tech contributions apt in their crisp simplicity.