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The quintessentially Los Angeles custom of valet parking is a perfect entry point for Namour’s portrait of middle-class anxiety and cultural assimilation. The first feature by writer-director Heidi Saman, which received the LA Film Festival’s LA Muse Award, tracks a young Egyptian-American valet’s slow-motion nervous breakdown amidst the 2008 economic collapse and family fragmentation. The drama has an understated formal rigor, and though its low-key approach can occasionally feel flat, the fusion of stark alienation and deadpan humor makes it an unusually accomplished debut, with strong contributions on both sides of the camera.
Shooting in Los Angeles and Orange County, Saman and cinematographer Dawn Chenette use widescreen compositions to emphasize the spaces between people — and around one person in particular. As the listless Steven, Karim Saleh looks a bit older than his character’s twentysomething years, but he ably conveys the agitation beneath his easygoing façade. At the glitzy restaurant where Steven parks cars, he endures dispiriting staff meetings, and, in particularly well-observed moments, customers treat him and his co-workers like non-sentient beings. A model uses valet Tomas (Lavrenti Lopes) as a leaning post while she changes into her designer heels; a conspicuously unhappy man asks Steven to drive him around the block while he shoots up before a dreaded dinner.
On the home front, Steven’s parents, (Mona Hala and Waleed Zuaiter) are divorcing, and his grandmother (Wedad Abdou, a retired NASA astrophysicist making an impressive screen debut as the title character) has been moved, against her wishes, to a convalescent home. With the recession heightening financial worries and the household reduced to Steven and his mother, Layla, she puts the big suburban house that was once the center of family life up for sale, adding to Steven’s dwindling sense of identity and belonging.
The synthesis of the characters’ Egyptian culture and Americanness plays out as the unconscious, ongoing balancing act that it is. But while Steven’s high-achieving sister (Nicole Haddad) unequivocally chooses modernity over tradition, he hasn’t the inner strength to withstand familial expectations, and it doesn’t help that he’s thrust into the position of go-between among various non-communicating relatives.
With his girlfriend, Gabi (Melina Lizette), he experiences a certain freedom and joy, at least for a while. Saman crafts a series of conversations between them, in person and by text, that build upon Steven’s loneliness and the indefinable ache of missed signals when two people talk past each other. Steven’s footing grows less certain in every aspect of his life, and when he makes a decisive move at work, it’s an act of cruelty, justified as self-preservation, that’s as believable as it is startling. So, too, is his self-contained dissolution at the city’s edge, surrounded by the cheer of a nighttime beach party.
The film’s astutely observed confrontations go beyond obvious domestic tensions, with Saman’s screenplay offering such finely detailed asides as a seemingly run-of-the-mill encounter with a real estate agent that briefly illuminates a stranger’s suffering. And when Steven and his friends are hassled by a cop for being Arab, the main character quietly seethes while his buddy Manu mouths off. Played by Amin El Gamal with a convincing combination of inebriation and sarcasm, Manu provides a telling contrast to Steven, whose quiet seething is the movie’s slow-burning fuse, brought to discomforting life in Saleh’s performance. First-generation immigrant aspirations and estrangement tangle unpredictably, and movingly, in Namour.
Venue: LA Film Festival (LA Muse)
Production companies: Twice Told Films, Papadopolis Films
Cast: Karim Saleh, Nicole Haddad, Mona Hala, Wedad Abdou, Lavrenti Lopes, Jessica Lu, Melina Lizette, Waleed Zuaiter, Aaron Ramzi, Terry Walters, Amin El Gamal, Tom Lenk
Director-screenwriter: Heidi Saman
Producers: Heidi Saman, Matthew Keene Smith
Executive producers: Dennis Scholl, Kristin Fairweather
Director of photography: Dawn Chenette
Production designer: Sharmila Ray
Costume designer: Peiyi Wong
Editor: Mark Tumas
Composer: Tyler Pursel
Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
Not rated, 80 minutes
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