I have a crush. And I’ve got it bad. Not on a coworker, or a stranger who brushed by me on the subway, not even on a celebrity. No, I have a crush on a movie.
Since watching Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between I’ve struggled to think about much else. I’ve bitten my tongue to avoid bringing it up again in conversations. I’ve flipped through the same dozen screenshots I took while watching. I’ve reread the same couple of interviews with Hamoud and even though it’s only been two weeks I’ve already watched it again.
In Between came out in the US during the first week of January, so technically it’s a 2018 release, which means technically it’s the best movie of the year. According to me anyway. So if you’re tired of reading top ten lists dominated by male-directed movies, allow me to convince you to give this movie a chance. You just might fall in love.
The movie opens with a bride-to-be getting her leg waxed. An older woman spouts advice at her. “Men don’t like women who raise their voices.” That kind of timeless wisdom. We cut to a club, fabulous looking women accompanied by dolled up queer men. “I’m going to miss these outings,” the bride says. And then she slowly vanishes from the scene.
This is not her film. This is not a movie about a newlywed adjusting to married life. This is about the woman doing drugs already distant from her betrothed friend. This is about the DJ in her element smiling over at them. This is about the bride’s cousin who we’ll meet later, religious and studious but equally independent.
Laila, Salma, and Nour are our protagonists. Three Palestinian women living in Tel Aviv who share little in common besides their apartment and an unbending commitment to being themselves. Laila is a lawyer, a modern woman who says things like “Let’s close the deal here and now,” while smoking a cigarette and flirting. Every outfit she wears is perfect, her hair is amazing, and, honestly, I might just have to commit the rest of my life to constant swooning over actress Mouna Hawa.
Salma is a DJ who also works at a restaurant, but she’s willing to quit when her manager tells her to stop speaking Arabic because it’s “unpleasant.” Salma is aloof and hot, the kind of character who in most movies seems gay but it’s never addressed. Well, let me tell you! It’s addressed! While I hate to rob you of my delicious surprise, I know that this and this alone will probably get you to watch the movie and that’s my main goal here. Sana Jammelieh is somehow a first time actor (she’s a DJ in real life) and the humor and vulnerability she brings to this part is a testament to both her talent and Hamoud’s abilities as a director.
Nour is the outsider of the three. A computer science student from a conservative Muslim family who is engaged to be married. Laila and Salma jump to conclusions about Nour, and Hamoud assumes the audience will do the same. One of Nour’s first moments on screen is her laughing at a figurine with a large spring penis. Right away Hamoud asserts that yes she’s more than her archetype, but that’s hardly the most interesting thing about her. Not being a stereotype can be its own kind of stereotype, and Hamoud ensures all three women get to just be people. Actor Shaden Kanboura says so much with every facial expression as Nour finds balance between her expected passivity and her desire to live her own life.
Nour moving in, Laila starting a new relationship, and Salma quitting her job ignite the plot of the film. Nour’s fiancé becomes increasingly controlling and sexually violent. Laila wonders if it’s possible to find love while being independent. And Salma gets more immersed in night life where she meets the bewitching Dunia, propelling her to a possible coming out. While the characters deal with their individual conflicts, and squabble with each other, they also must contend with the challenges of living in Tel Aviv as Palestinians. This daily oppression isn’t the focus of the film, but it provides a constant level of exhaustion. A biased news story, a rude shop clerk, Salma’s restaurant manager.
The film captures so well the experience of living with multiple oppressed identities. Everything from life-changing trauma to minor microaggressions are on display and their impact is seen in each character. But so is the power of those identities. The communities and friendships that form, the fashion and the partying, the dancing, the cooking, the sex. It’s as exhilarating to watch the characters cope with the mundanity of oppression as it is to watch them take a stand and fight back.
In Between is similar to another one of the year’s best films: Widows. Both works feature groups of women who don’t always get along banding together to fight patriarchy. But while that movie dives fully into genre, In Between hovers around it. There are moments where the movie feels like it’s approaching something more dramatic, like it might become the mouse-and-cat wish fulfillment of a Lisbeth Salander story. But it just doesn’t. Instead it feels dramatic in the way a real-life moment might. The characters are brave, they manipulate, they escape. But the whole time their humanity is at the center. It makes what they achieve for themselves all the more impressive.
There are so many more details to talk about like when one of Salma’s male suitors tears a grapefruit with the most grotesque heterosexuality. And then in contrast Dunia peels an orange with long sexy gay fingers. Two views in I know I’ve just begun to capture the nuance of this movie. When reality is captured on screen there’s a lot to explore.
I won’t spoil how the plot develops but I will warn that the film has no definite conclusion. The very last moment is a freeze frame. Since François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, this technique has popped up in everything from Barbara Loden’s Wanda to Rocky to the 5th season finale of Girls. In each of these works we end on the face of single individual, allowing us to reflect on what they’ve experienced and what their future might hold.
The last frame of In Between features all three women. They stand together, drink together. They’re solemn, but they’re together. Their futures are uncertain, but they’re together.
During an era where so many of us are desperately looking for comfort, I can think of no cinematic message more fitting for 2018 than this one. No false promises of “girl power” or happiness. Just a reassurance that being alone together is better than being apart.
In Between is available to rent across platforms and is available for free on Kanopy.