Director Oualid Mouaness’ enriching use of images and sensitivity to narrative balance outweigh his unexceptional dialogue in “1982.” Even with such a caveat, his debut feature succeeds in accessing emotional truths that leave a lingering bittersweet melancholy. Based on his schoolboy memories of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the film is set on the last day of classes in an elementary school, integrating unremarkable childhood behavior with the ever-growing apprehensions of teachers and administrators as the rumble of war planes makes it impossible to protect the kids from the worsening situation.
While the script suffers from a lack of originality, the film’s overall strengths keep compensating, as attested by several awards accruing since its Toronto Film Festival premiere. If promoted properly, pushing its bona fides as Lebanon’s Oscar entry while underlining Nadine Labaki’s presence as star, “1982” could see boutique-size international distribution.
Despite the deteriorating situation in southern Lebanon, the staff of an Anglophone school on the Beirut outskirts do their best to get the pupils through their final day of exams. Yasmine (Labaki) arrives already preoccupied by family issues including the announcement by her brother Georges (Said Serhan) that he’s leaving to join a militia in the south. For Yasmine, the way to survive is to keep your head down and push away any talk of politics, especially when it involves conflict. If she can just get through the day and return home to help her hysterical mother care for her father recovering from surgery, then she’ll be able to cope.
For members of her fifth-grade class, things are fraught with a different kind of tension: Wissam (Mohamad Dalli) has a secret crush on Joanna (Gia Madi), but on top of the usual hesitations of any 10-year-old boy expressing love, there’s the near impossibility of seeing her outside of school since they live in opposite sides of Beirut, separated by checkpoints. Majid (Ghassan Maalouf), the stereotypical overweight dweeby friend, keeps reminding his pal that it’s a hopeless case, but cupid has struck and it just remains for Wissam to admit to Joanna that he’s the one leaving mash notes in her locker.
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While puppy love and schoolyard pressures occupy the junior set, the adults listen to troubling radio reports about the Israeli invasion, soon brought closer to home by the ever-approaching explosion of rockets. Rana Eid’s superb sound design does much to create a potent sense of impending calamity as the blasts come nearer and the sense of dread takes on a tangible aural component. For Wissam, the dogfighting planes seen through the classroom window might either destroy his chance with Joanna or concretize a potentially budding attachment; for the adults, intent on shielding their charges from panic, the difficulties of maintaining composure while uncertainty and dread inexorably builds becomes increasingly difficult.
This balanced interplay is one of the film’s strong suits, helping to compensate for unexceptional dialog that threatens to derail Mouaness’ goal of making his film — his story — different from countless other children-in-wartime movies. Luckily, the director’s pictorial sense offsets script problems, and together with DP Brian Rigney Hubbard he’s crafted a visually absorbing means of narrating a single day. This is immediately apparent with enveloping closeups, far more attuned to the stressful situation than the words used, during a tense conversation between Yasmine and her colleague-boyfriend Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman). It’s even more perceptible when Wissam’s drawing of the sky is transposed to the actual sky, his pencil’s broad strokes leaving colored bands of light blue in the daylight. This unexpected moment of magical realism nicely conveys how a child’s perception of his world maintains its innocence, but by implication only up to a certain point.
Audiences will be divided over the animated ending, which can be read either as a testament to the strength of a child’s imagination to pull him through trauma, or a misjudged attempt to leave viewers with a ray of hope as the bombings come ever closer.