“Thelma & Louise” gets a bland cross-cultural update in “Just Like a Woman,” the inauspicious first entry in French-Algerian helmer Rachid Bouchareb’s planned trilogy tackling changing relations between America and the Arab world. Although fronted by solid performances from Sienna Miller and Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as two desperate souls who bond over their shared love of belly dancing, this tale of friendship and rebellion on the open road reps a thin, obvious reworking of a well-worn template. Bouchareb’s films (“Days of Glory,” “Outside the Law”) have never enjoyed much of a Stateside following, and despite its American setting, this one is unlikely to break the mold.
As a tale of two worlds colliding, “Just Like a Woman” has a few parallels with Bouchareb’s 2009 drama “London River,” which threw together an Englishwoman and an African man against its titular English backdrop. In this initially Chicago-set story, the central relationship is between two decent but embattled women: Marilyn (Miller), a local with a keen interest in belly dancing, and Mona (Farahani), an Egyptian-born immigrant whose husband, Mourad (Roschdy Zem), owns a convenience store where Marilyn regularly shops.
Editor Yannick Kergoat cuts back and forth between the two women as the script (by Joelle Touma, Marion Doussot and Bouchareb) dutifully lays out their stifling circumstances. Abruptly laid off during a recession low point, Marilyn returns home early to find her loser husband (Jesse Bob Harper) in bed with another woman. Mona, meanwhile, has yet to bear Mourad any children and is thus relentlessly abused by her overbearing mother-in-law (Chafia Boudraa). From a viewer standpoint, the old hag pretty much gets what’s coming to her when Mona, in a fit of agitation, accidentally mixes up the woman’s medication with fatal results.
Fearful of getting arrested, Mona goes on the run and almost immediately runs into Marilyn, fleeing her own sorry existence. Mona decides to accompany her on a road trip down to Sante Fe, where Marilyn plans to pursue her dreams and enter a belly-dancing contest. Along the way they make money performing at clubs, Mona being no slouch in the dance department herself, and gradually they build a friendship that will be tested along the way by uncovered secrets as well as unpredictable outside forces.
Its Bob Dylan-referencing title aside, “Just Like a Woman” doesn’t push the feminist-empowerment angle too hard. Nor, despite an unpleasant encounter with some small-minded fellow travelers, does the film devolve into a tract on the challenges of being an Arab woman in a hostile Western world. It doesn’t do anything, really, except meander along in a mildly pleasant if seldom persuasive manner: Beyond their superficial similarities (weak husbands) and differences (take a guess), Marilyn and Mona haven’t been sufficiently individuated as characters to render their journey of discovery particularly meaningful to an audience of outsiders. Nor do they especially reward the talents of Miller and Farahani, both of whom nonetheless bring conviction and strong emotional shadings to their underwritten roles.
Christophe Beaucarne’s lovely widescreen lensing of U.S. desert backdrops is the standout contribution in a capable tech package.