‘Excuse My French’: Palm Springs Review

Courtesy of Palm Springs International Film Festival
Middle Eastern middle-school comedy sticks to the middle of the road.

Amr Salama’s third narrative feature offers a snapshot of contemporary Egyptian cultural values

Egyptian filmmaker Amr Salama’s last film, Asmaa, was a piercing drama about the issue of AIDS in the Arab world and the widespread stigmatization of victims. With Excuse My French, he makes another focused genre choice, delivering a family comedy that humorously treats some potentially sensitive cultural topics. Following its 2014 domestic release, further exposure may be reliant on international broadcast networks or home-entertainment formats. 

As the film opens, a narrator’s voiceover (never identified) introduces 12-year-old Hany (Ahmed Dash), an only child from a well-off middle-class Egyptian family who seems pretty well set. He has a Mac computer, a Nintendo Wii and all the games he can find time for in between his busy studies at a British private school and sports practice, all thanks to the respectable salary earned by his mid-30s banker father Abdullah (Hany Adel). Although his dad, a faithful Christian, dotes on Hany, his mother Christine (Kinda Allouch) remains a bit aloof, avoiding church services and focusing on her career as a cellist with an opera company. Hany’s ideal life begins to unravel, however, when his father suddenly passes away and his uncles persuade his mother to economize by enrolling him in a local public school.

Hany’s new all-boys school is a hard-knock setting, populated by rowdy blue-collar kids, along with some aggressive bullies who waste no time putting the newcomer in his place. When a teacher makes the erroneous assumption that Hany must be Muslim like nearly all the rest of the students, he doesn’t object, hoping that he can avoid trouble by fitting in. He even goes so far as to enter and win a school Koran-recital contest in an overwhelmingly successful campaign to impress the other kids. All along, Hany promises the image of Christ hung on the wall of his bedroom that he’ll soon reveal his Christian background to his classmates.

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The time never seems quite right, however, until a schoolyard dustup with the school’s chief bully results in his mother visiting the principal’s office and blowing Hany’s carefully constructed cover story. With his Christian affiliation revealed Hany must find a way to win back his disdainful classmates’ admiration, but it’s going to be an uphill battle, even for the former popular kid.

Although Salama’s feature ran into roadblocks with Egyptian censors during production and certainly merits plaudits for successful completion, the film may strike non-Muslims as exceedingly tame, while at the same time running the risk of offending some of the faithful. Salama’s gently satirical tone is no doubt designed to skirt criticism regarding unflattering depictions of the national education system, although the humor sometimes comes across as rather mild for broader audiences. 

Salama’s rosy-tinted version of typical childhood conflicts provides an interesting perspective on contemporary Egyptian cultural and religious issues, but remains too conventionally conceived to stand out from many similar films. His decision to adopt an overly broad tone, unduly emphasized by a jokey adult voiceover, pushes the level of humor from forced comedy to half-hearted satire.

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Fortunately, the young performers can hold their own, especially Dash as the frequently confused and conflicted young Hany, who always manages to find a creative way out of a scrape. Syrian actor Allouch would have benefited from a more substantial part as the young widow, but ends up playing a supporting role to the schoolkids. Production quality is first-rate throughout, particularly cinematographer Islam Abdelsamie’s agile lensing and production designer Hend Haider’s alternately classy and grubby interiors contrasting Hany’s home and school environments.

Production companies: Film-Clinic, The Producers

Cast: Ahmed Dash, Hany Adel, Kinda Allouch, Ahmed Helmy

Director-writer: Amr Salama

Producers: Hani Osama, Mohamed Hefzy, Hady El Bagory

Director of photography: Islam Abdelsamie

Production designer: Hend Haider

Editor: Baher Rasheed

Music: Hany Adel

No rating, 99 minutes 

 

 

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