This film makes good use of what has become a cliché in crime films: the hero, seemingly trapped in a drug deal, gets out of the jam and turns the tables on the mob. We bought this wildly improbable premise as far back as John Guare’s script for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. I’m buying it again with this Tribeca entry because of solid filmmaking, an appealing cast and the bonus of armchair travel to exotic Morocco. First timer Sean Gullette keeps it tight and colorful, and his own acting background (Darren Aronovsky’s Pi), no doubt contributed to the superior level of the performances.
The heroine, Malika, played by Chimae Ben Acha, is lead singer for the Traitors, an all-female, politically defiant punk rock group in Tangier. She’s told by an agent that they can get studio time for their first demo if they pay the production costs. Determined to get the money, Malika starts a desperate quest that includes posing as a prostitute – and bolting with the cash without being touched – and being a drug mule. The drug job is to drive a car loaded with heroin back to Tangier. Her accomplice, Amal, is an addict and girlfriend of one of the gang. She doesn’t hide her hostility for the beautiful new recruit, and warns her not mess up her “game”. But we’ve already come to expect the unexpected from Malika, who silently waits for the right moment to make a game-changing move of her own. While on the return trip, she notices Amal furtively looking at a piece of paper, and asks her: “Is that your sonogram?”
From that moment, the film morphs into a nerve-jangling thriller, building suspense on two fronts: first, because Malika is an amateur mixed up with ruthless, seasoned criminals and, second, because we still don’t know what the hell she’s up to. Part of the fun is in seeing how each piece in her plan fits into another piece, with surprises all along the way. Sure, credibility is tortured, but this kind of film only works if you care what happens to the characters. Malika is brave, yet vulnerable; compassionate, yet resolute in fighting against a male-dominated culture that treats women as inferiors. We may not be fully swayed to that view, but we never doubt her convictions. Or that she’ll risk her life to defend them.
All performances are good, but Soufia Issami, as Amal, is a standout. Crucial to the film’s success is making us believe that Amal will join in Malika’s scheme. Issami’s subtly shaded performance details her change from distrust to the awareness that Malika is giving her the only chance she’ll ever have for happiness.
At the screening, Gullette emphasized how great it was to have two cinematographers, especially for finding so many locations. This helped to maintain the film’s swift pace as we followed Malika, constantly on the move through so many views of changing streets and countryside. Probably of equal importance was the adroit editing of the renowned Sabine Hoffman.