‘Naz & Maalik’: Outfest Review

Courtesy of Wolfe Video
Long on charm, despite awkward dramatic turns 

A Brooklyn-shot debut feature follows a day in the life of two closeted gay Muslim teens

Shot on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Naz & Maalik unfolds with a youthful vitality, bolstered by the charm of its lead actors. Newcomers Kerwin Johnson Jr. and Curtiss Cook Jr. play Muslim high-schoolers who are adjusting differently to a new, sexual intimacy in their friendship. As Jay Dockendorf’s first feature follows the New York teens over the course of a bright spring day, its refreshing energy buoys the slight story.

Yet that lighthearted zing doesn’t entirely compensate for shaky attempts at dramatic incident, particularly in a plot thread that finds the young men mistakenly targeted by an FBI agent. What might have been a gripping or even a satiric portrayal of government surveillance in a minority neighborhood instead feels awkward and unconvincing, and Dockendorf doesn’t pull the pieces together in compelling fashion.

The writer-director and his stars nonetheless generate a delightful cinematic chemistry, and the Outfest offering is sure to win fans during its fest-circuit travels. Wolfe Releasing, which picked up the title after its bow at SXSW, plans an early-2016 release.

The fluid work of cinematographer Jake Magee and editor Andrew Hafitz propels the loose-limbed peregrinations of Naz (Johnson) and Maalik (Cook), good kids and good-natured hucksters. After school they hit the streets and the subway to hawk lottery tickets, scented oils, snacks and sundries. Maalik, the more self-confident and extroverted of the two, is also less conflicted about their sexual relationship. Though neither boy’s family is especially devout, they do adhere to the basic social strictures of Islam. For the friends-turned-lovers, Naz especially, worries over being found out by their parents take precedence over concerns that a federal agent has pulled them aside for questioning.

The latter event is the result of a brief encounter with a weirdo (Bradley Brian Custer) who tries to sell them a gun. FBI agent Sarah Mickell (Annie Grier), seemingly green if not outright inept, puts the duo in her investigative crosshairs. In keeping with his general nervousness about his sexual identity, Naz lies about his whereabouts on the previous night, when he and Maalik were together.

Such scrutiny of Muslim citizens is no doubt true; Dockendorf based his story on the experiences of an acquaintance who was a closeted gay Muslim teen in post-9/11 New York. But as presented and performed here, the FBI angle feels underdeveloped at best, and Mickell’s behavior is hard to buy.

By contrast, a more indirect reference to government spying works beautifully to convey the atmosphere of intrusive monitoring. When the teens visit a mosque, the imam (Ibrahim Miari) opens the prayer by offering a faux-cheerful welcome to any undercover police or federal agents among the worshipers.

The film clicks especially when the friends, inspired by the street life around them, trade random observations that often turn into charged and telling disagreements. They spar respectfully but vigorously about altruism and heroism — and reference Kitty Genovese in a way that only a New Yorker would. Passing a condo construction site that threatens to “turn Brooklyn into Manhattan,” they debate the value of progress (an argument further embodied in the come-ons of a gentrifier played by David Farrington).

A subplot involving a plan to buy a (live) halal chicken for the birthday dinner of Maalik’s mother (Monciana Edmondson) goes awry for the characters and the movie, although there are a few instructive moments along the misbegotten way.

Though Dockendorf doesn’t deliver the intended dramatic punch, he’s fully in sync with his lead characters, and Cook and Johnson are never less than engaging. When Maalik and Naz share a stolen kiss in an alley, the reference to My Beautiful Laundrette, however self-conscious, is utterly apt, given the religious and cultural conservatism that inhibits the central characters, and the city energy that drives them as surely as it feeds on their exuberance and smarts.

Production company: Pecking Wilds
Cast: Kerwin Johnson Jr., Curtiss Cook Jr., Annie Grier, Bradley Brian Custer, Ibrahim Miari, David Farrington, Monciana Edmondson
Director: Jay Dockendorf 
Screenwriter: Jay Dockendorf 
Producers: Jacob Albert, Margaret Katcher
Executive producers: Margaret Katcher, Jay Dockendorf, Nylkoorb
Director of photography: Jake Magee
Production designer: Dylan Metzger
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Composer: Adam Gunther
Casting director: Holly Buczek

No rating, 86 minutes