This review was written for the festival screening of "Caramel." 

Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- The set-up is hardly new -- a beauty salon as nexus of female social life -- but it feels fresh in "Caramel," a relaxed comedy from first-time filmmaker Nadine Labaki. Warm-hearted and accessible, it could benefit from good word of mouth in a limited art house run, particularly among audiences who like their rom-coms laced with foreign ingredients.

Labaki herself stars as Layale, the proprietor of a Lebanese salon. A handful of characters bustle around the slightly chaotic place, running the gamut from Rima, a (closeted?) lesbian hair washer, to a young bride-to-be and an actress past her prime. (A slightly cruel running gag has the latter using strategically placed adhesive tape as a poor face-lift substitute for auditions.)

Layale is suffering through an affair with a married man, but more promising hints of romance pop up throughout the film: the policeman who, despite the crush he has on her, is duty-bound to give Layale parking tickets she never pays; the dignified old gent who visits aging seamstress Rose; the stunning beauty with long, silken hair who develops a fondness for having her scalp massaged by Rima. Interestingly, while Labaki gets charming mileage out of each subplot, she makes a point of leaving each hanging in the air at the end, only tying up the one relationship we're confident about at the picture's start.

Performances are likeable across the board from women who, for the most part, have few if any other screen credits. The absence of pro acting experience it tough to believe in the case of Sihame Haddad, playing the Rose, who is especially strong in a poignant scene late in the film.

Labaki saves some drama for herself, as Layale struggles with what to do about her married lover and the wife who "coincidentally" comes by the salon for a waxing, but is generous with her co-stars, each of whom gets some time in the spotlight. A light-on-its-feet score by Khaled Mouzannar, mixing piano with violin and traditional instruments, complements the relaxed vibe perfectly, while gold-hued cinematography catches the salon and surrounding areas (Labaki dedicates the picture "to my Beirut") to good effect.

Roadside Attractions
Les Films des Tournelles / Roissy Films / Les Films de Beyrouth / Sunnyland / Arte France Cinema
Director: Nadine Labaki
Writers: Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily, Rodney Al Haddad
Producer: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Director of photography: Yves Sehnaoui
Production designer: Cynthia Zahar
Music: Khaled Mouzannar
Costume designer: Caroline Labaki
Editor: Laure Gardette
Layale: Nadine Labaki
Nisrine: Yasmine Al Masri
Rima: Joanna Moukarzel
Jamale: Gisele Aouad
Rose: Sihame Haddad
Lili: Aziza Semaan
Youssef: Adel Karam
Running time -- 95 minutes
No MPAA rating