The anonymity of the Internet is both a blessing and a curse for the physically handicapped 20-year-old in “Romeo Eleven,” the fragile and touching feature debut of Serbo-Canuck scribe-helmer Ivan Grbovic. Set in Montreal’s Lebanese Christian community, the well-acted pic, co-written by Grbovic and his talented lenser, Sara Mishara, treats delicate material with a deft hand as it observes a youngster whose affliction makes him an outcast not so much in the real world as in his still-forming mind. Further fest travel seems assured after a Karlovy Vary competish berth, with offshore sales possible, especially for smallscreen formats.
Young Rami (Ali Ammar) aimlessly roams the malls and streets of the city when he should be attending courses to prep for business school, as desired by his stern immigrant father, Ziad (Joseph Bou Nassar). Too busy with his restaurant business and the upcoming wedding of his eldest daughter, Nada (Caline Habib), Ziad fails to notice that something’s not quite right with his only son, who has always had difficulties walking. Rami is either alone or hangs out with his high school-aged kid sister, Sabine (Sanda Bourenane), with whom he speaks French and who, like Rami, seems to lead something of a double life.
Grbovic and co-screenwriter Mishara (who is of Turkish and Jewish-American parentage) keep the early reels relatively straightforward, parceling out info in small doses and paying close attention to the daily routines of this Maronite family. With its emphasis on education, hard work and traditional values, Ziad and his children don’t seem to differ too much from most other first-generation immigrant clans.
At night, Rami finds some solace on the Internet, where, as Romeo11, he chats with the mysterious beauty Malaury26. Repped by a handsome avatar picture with none of his awkward walking movements, Rami freely flirts with Malaury26, to whom he presents himself as a successful young businessman — perhaps not unlike the one his father would like him to become one day.
Pic fully comes into its own about halfway in, when Malaury26 again suggests they should meet, and Rami finally agrees. The boy’s minute preparation for the big event and the evening itself play out like one long, impressively sustained sequence in which the personalities of Rami and Romeo11 come face-to-face. Finale wraps things up beautifully; the final shot works as both an arresting image and an elegant visual expression of where Rami finds himself.
With a tone very close to naturalism and character development on a tiny, very subtle scale, much the film’s success relies on non-pro thesp Ammar to hold the screen, which he does with ease. With striking features and considerable charisma masking a childlike vulnerability, Ammar, who suffers from a similar condition to Rami’s in real life, is simply mesmerizing, often expressing ideas and feelings without need for dialogue. Hopefully, this natural talent will be able to carve a niche for himself in Canuck cinema. Vet Lebanese actor Bou Nassar (“West Beirut”) ably heads the supporting cast.
Mishara’s fluid and saturated lensing, which incorporates several nicely executed tracking shots, leads the strong tech package. Some vid footage of Rami trying to walk as a toddler feels randomly inserted, serves no direct purpose and could be removed.