Two middle-class French girls fall prey to ISIL recruiters in Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s oh-so-earnest hot-button drama “Heaven Will Wait.” Designed as a warning to parents (do you know what your girls are up to?!), the film is armor-plated against criticism because negative evaluations could so easily be accused of suggesting that such things don’t happen, when in truth the problem isn’t the theme but its facile treatment. Including staged group-therapy meetings with real-life counselor Dounia Bouzar is meant to add to the authenticity, yet the “ripped from the headlines” sensationalizing combined with a dull genericism (not to mention unconvincing attempts at countering Islamophobia) mean “Heaven Will Wait” never rises above a TV issue-of-the-week broadcast. Still, the film will likely do decent European business given its topicality.
Audiences who can recall all those late-1970s, early-’80s small screen dramas about young people drawn into cults will recognize the same tropes, here in spades, from the characterization of initially perfect teens turned into drones, to the heroic deprogrammers refusing to lose hope. Just as with her previous film, “Once in a Lifetime,” director and co-writer Mention-Schaar aims to recreate real events, yet telescoping characters means none of them feel remotely true, and the bland artificiality dressed up as authenticity will likely be sniggered at by the high school crowd.
Two cases are told in tandem, though the first is related in linear fashion while the second cuts unsatisfactorily between present, past, and future. At the start, Sonia Bouzaria (Noémie Merlant) is pulled from her bedroom by cops in protective gear, as parents Catherine (Sandrine Bonnaire) and Samir (Zinedine Soualem) look on in terrified bewilderment. They learn that their daughter was about to leave for Syria to join ISIL. Sentenced to a sort of in-house probation and forbidden to use the internet or phone, Sonia wildly tells her parents she’s doing it to ensure the whole family will be together in Paradise.
In contrast to Sonia’s shifts from sullen to half-crazed and back, another teen, Melanie Thenot (Naomi Amarger), is the perfect daughter. She plays cello, she visits her granny, she’s a social activist in school. That’s how it starts (parents, beware of your child’s social activism!): She begins a texting relationship with a guy who uses the name “Freedom Lover.” In truth, he’s an ISIL recruiter, getting her to watch videos about Palestinians, urging her to be modest, and making himself, all via text, her indispensable advisor and promised husband.
While Melanie is getting sucked in and Sonia is freaking out because she’s trapped at home and can’t get to Syria, an adult woman, Sylvie (Clotilde Courau), cuts her hair short and wanders about in a daze. Slowly it becomes clear that Sylvie is Melanie’s mom, and Melanie is awol. Along with other middle class parents of children who’ve unexpectedly decamped to ISIL, Sylvie attends group therapy with Bouzar, who’s trying to help families understand what happened to their kids, and to deprogram those like Melanie, saved before boarding the plane.
Unsurprisingly, Bouzar is the only figure here who seems genuine. Sonia is angry, occasionally frightened, but has no depth, and Melanie’s leap from goody-goody to niqab-wearing fanatic doesn’t feel remotely believable. No one can deny that ISIL is doing a terrifyingly good job at recruiting vulnerable European teens, but “Heaven Will Wait” simplifies and compresses so it all feels merely melodramatic. In addition, Mention-Schaar tosses in a few generically positive words from Bouzar about Islam, yet then includes an unequivocally Islamophobic scene with Melanie racing home to pray as the soundtrack fills with a muezzin’s chant accompanied by a thunderstorm.
Scenes like that rub shoulders with a shot of Sonia, liberated from her ISIL urges, breathing in the air of freedom as she leans her head out a car window (the hackneyed image incongruously also turns up on the poster). Performances are sincere but leave no lasting impression apart from Merlant’s fuming, while the visuals are standard.