Review by Sean Boelman
Inshallah a Boy was the first Jordanian film to play at the Cannes Film Festival this past summer, and now it is making its way to TIFF. Like much of Middle Eastern cinema, Amjad Al Rasheed’s directorial debut is tense and provocative in its approach to an important social issue, but like so many first features, it bites off a bit more than it can chew.
Inshallah a Boy follows a woman who is faced with the tribulations of a patriarchal society after the death of her husband, as her brother-in-law attempts to lay claim to her inheritance due to the fact that there was no male heir. Part race-against-the-clock thriller and part social melodrama, Al Rasheed’s movie has some brilliant moments, but bites off a bit more than it can chew.
The film really hits the ground running emotionally, giving us only a few minutes of background on the protagonist before thrusting her into grief and tragedy. It’s quite a risk, as audiences could have failed to form a connection with the character having so few characteristics to work off of, but the trials the protagonist is subjected to are harrowing enough to make the movie truly hurt.
Mouna Hawa is simply extraordinary in her leading role, radiating sadness and devastation every moment she is on-screen. A great deal of the film’s emotional gut-punch is owed to Hawa’s expressive performance that manages to do so much — even through her mannerisms and facial expressions. Yumma Marwan also shines in her smaller, but nevertheless affecting turn.
The movie is at its best when it is functioning as a condemnation of the patriarchal values and laws of Jordanian society. Unlike many films that deal with the oppression of women, there’s no cartoonist and chauvinistic villain to be found here. Although the protagonist’s brother-in-law who seeks to steal her inheritance is an awful, unlikable man, it’s the fact that he’s so quietly duplicitous — not mustache-twirling — that makes him so effectively detestable.
Unfortunately, however powerful this portion of the movie may be, it is weighed down by a subplot centering around the protagonist’s employer’s daughter who is faced with an unwanted pregnancy and is looking to get an abortion. Although it’s clear that the purpose here is to juxtapose the two storylines, the abortion storyline is frustratingly underdeveloped, feeling shoe-horned in as a result.
From a directorial standpoint, Al Rasheed is extraordinarily skilled at creating a sense of claustrophobia. Much of the film is set in tight quarters — be it small apartments, lawyer’s offices, or doctor’s offices — creating a feeling that effectively mirrors the constraints levied against the protagonist by the patriarchal society in which she lives.
Amjad Al Rasheed’s Inshallah a Boy could have spared to be a bit tighter with its narrative and pacing. However, there’s no denying that the movie manages to ask some interesting and important questions in a way that is thought-provoking and well-crafted.
Inshallah a Boy is screening at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 7-17 in Toronto, Canada.