Though Amr Salama’s “Sheikh Jackson” is about a conservative young imam who finds his faith shaken by a troubling obsession with the late King of Pop, it isn’t really the cross-cultural crowd-pleaser that conceit (and the film itself) initially promises. Instead, this is primarily a low-key character study about a man in internal torment, from which his eventual liberation is as murky as it is underwhelming. Egypt’s feature Oscar submission thus dangles something fun, only to deliver something sober, neither angle well-realized enough to make a satisfying whole. All told, it’s a well-crafted but middling drama whose attention-catching gimmick only gets in the way.
Khaled (Ahmad El-Fishawy) is a respected junior cleric in 2009 Alexandria. But he’s increasingly distracted, neglecting wife and child, slipping up while leading prayers at his mosque. An outer air of pious chastisement hides a long-suppressed turmoil bubbling to the surface, triggered by news of the sudden death of you-know-who. At his most distressed, Khaled hallucinates MJ himself (mutely played by impersonator Carlo Riley) appearing in his vicinity, or at one point a crowd of worshippers beginning to do the “Thriller” zombie dance.
Flashbacks reveal the cause of this unraveling, going back as far as childhood, when his warm-hearted mother — a closet Jackson fan herself — provided a buffer between Khaled and macho father Hani (Maged El Kedwany). But she died young, leaving the two men in her life uncomfortably alone together.
As a teenager (Ahmed Malek), Khaled is beyond the comprehension of his gym-owning, former-bodybuilder dad, particularly once he begins consciously adopting the look of the western pop star Pa dismisses as a “drag queen” and no fit role model. But Khaled continues down this path at least partly to impress a free-spirited, musically talented girl at school. This exacerbates tensions with Hani to the point where the youth goes to live with a devout uncle, who sets him on his adult course of Islamic fundamentalism.
Present-day and 1991 sequences occupy roughly equal time here, interwoven toward parallel crises that prompt young and older Khaled to make big life changes. But despite good performances (particularly by El-Fishawy in the lead role and El Kedwany as the well-intentioned yet crude, licentiously secular father), the psychological insight at the core here wavers from pat to poorly delineated. Arab-world viewers may automatically accept the surreptitious role Michael Jackson plays in our protagonist’s life — he was a significant, oft-forbidden symbol of rebellion in many such nations for many years, But Salama and Omar Khaled’s screenplay doesn’t really make clear for Westerners just what this singular performer’s appeal is for Khaled. What exactly does the flamboyant superstar represent or express that Khaled himself cannot?
It doesn’t help that there’s no actual original Jackson music or footage here (beyond a fleeting TV clip), making the central conceit seem even more of a hollow gimmick. Especially early on, the film teases us toward a full-on explosion of incongruous Jacksonalia that never actually arrives. Further, the catharsis Khaled experiences at the end feels contrived, vague and unpersuasive — we’re not sure why he’s better, let alone why a little private moonwalking is suddenly compatible with his strict faith.
The solid tech/design contributions somewhat smooth over this lumpy mix, highlighted by d.p. Ahmed Beshary’s precise widescreen images. The result is a movie that’s watchable and executed with professional if occasionally plodding polish by Salama (“Excuse My French,” “Asmaa”). Still, “Sheikh Jackson” ultimately feels like an awkward compromise between differing narrative agendas.