Writer/director Firas Khoury’s Alam is an affecting and effective film firmly fixated on contradictions and how we navigate them to create a sense of self.
Tamer (Mahmood Bakri) and his friends Shekel (Mohammad Karaki) and Rida (Ahmad Zaghmouri) are Arab high school students living a middle-class life in a village in Israel. This contradiction is ever-present for the young Israeli-Arabs, inundated with daily reminders of past trauma still fresh in living memory. They navigate the present system, which purposefully limits their prospects, while protest movements and acts of political violence swirl around them. Forced in school to idly sit through lesson plans commemorating the anniversary of Israeli Independence Day—lessons ignoring the simultaneous anniversary of the Palestinian day of mourning over the loss of their homeland—Tamer and company are recruited by their classmate Safwat (Muhammad Abed Elrahman) and the attractive new girl Maysaá (Sereen Khass) into an act of political protest. It forces Tamer to quickly come to terms with reaching adulthood in a society where daily life is fraught with social and political consequence.
As we spend more time with our protagonists in the buildup to their life-changing act of protest, we’re given slice-of-life glimpses of the various male characters in the village who serve as visions of possible futures for the friend group—Tamer’s work-focused and apolitical father who urges him to avoid the ongoing protest movements, his mentally ill uncle who suffered severely in an Israeli jail, the local activist who pushes the neighborhood youth to learn their history and fight back, and even the neighborhood drug dealer who lives with his elderly mother—none of whom feel like fully attractive options.
The film is shot in a naturalistic style, making the excellent choice to often linger on the face of Tamer as he expressively processes the world around him. Tonally, Khoury’s dialogue is perfectly pitched for Tamer and his friends, rapidly shifting between their youthful focus on the activities that one would expect from teenage boys with unclear prospects—girls, drinking, social media, how to find weed, and how to make it through high school without trying much and without getting expelled for racking up minor infractions—and the tough realities of the environment they live in.
Alam is a brilliantly devastating coming-of-age story, one of comedy, confusion, and sorrow that thoroughly captures the sense of misguided teenage bravado mixed with genuine awkwardness and anxiety about finding a place in the world, raising the stakes beyond the mundane and giving us insight into a world so rarely seen on American movie screens. 109 min.