Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/08/11 15:33:04

"A well-observed coming of age story of Muslims in the Midwest."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Mooz-lum" opens with "based on actual events", and it does wind up feeling like the sort of the sort of movie that such a label gets applied to. It's well-observed and at times fascinatingly authentic, but also clearly the work of a young filmmaker who may feel the need to grab that extra hook into the audience. Writer/director Qasim Basir is a little rough at points, but he's got good material and gets great results fairly often.

As the film opens, Tariq (Evan Ross) is starting his freshman year at college after having been home-schooled by his father Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith) for the past few years. He's less than enthusiastic about some of the people he encounters - Cedric (Vladimi Versailles) across the hall made his life difficult back in public elementary school; both Hamza (Kunal Sharma), the Muslim roommate his father insisted upon, and his girlfriend Iman (Summer Bishil), are far less conflicted about their religion than he is; and his sister Taqua (Kimberly Drummond) has decided that this is the perfect time for her and their mother Safiyah (Nia Long) to become a part of Tariq's life again.

There's plenty more going on - a nice girl (Maryam Basir), a challenging professor (Dorian Missick) and the dean (Danny Glover) who doesn't like him, and flashbacks to Tariq's childhood in the early 1990s (which does mean, yes, that Tariq is starting college in August of 2001). It's as if Basir is attempting to fit every detail from his own life and anecdote others have told him in, and at times that makes for an extremely busy movie: There's a lot of flashback time, the culmination of the subplot with Professor Jamal and Dean Francis, and the climax of the 9/11 segment rests not on any of the main characters, but a pair of students we've barely seen.

For all that, when the focus is on Tariq's fracture family and their unique challenges, Mooz-lum really is exceptional. Take the opening scene, of a father seeing his son off to college. It's sentimental but not saccharine, with all the details one might not be familiar with feeling as right as the more common elements. It's very normal, but there are hints of the tension that the rest of the movie will explore, and when we see Tariq stop the car as soon as he's out of his father's sight and throw his kufi out the window, it's a perfect announcement of just how much anger and conflict these characters have without anybody raising their voice. The flashbacks may not have the most impressive child acting you'll ever find, but Basir is able to channel that into a display of how innocent these kids are.

The older actors do shine, though, especially Evan Ross in the lead. Ross does intense especially well; those who saw Life Is Hot in Cracktown likely remember his vicious teen gangster; here, he does a wonderful job of showing us just how angry and hostile Tariq is without ever having to shout to do it. It could be a one-note performance, but he and Basir have great takes on the fish-out-of-water moments: We maybe don't laugh out loud when he finds out that their mother lets Taqua go to concerts, but we do maybe smile a bit at how he suddenly seems a lot more like the sweet kid Jonathan Smith plays. Similarly, Roger Guenveur Smith makes Hassan stubborn and more than a little misguided - he and Nia Long play the disintegrating marriage perfectly - but he makes it come across as a tragic flaw rather than making him a monster; that opening scene is always in the back of our minds.

The rest of the cast is generally pretty good - Kunal Sharma, Summer Bishil, Vladimi Versailles, and Maryam Basir are all quite agreeable as Tariq's classmates, with Nia Long and Kimberly Drummond a cut above them as his estranged family. Dorian Missick's performance is, perhaps deliberately, a little too smooth (it would fit the self-proclaimed youngest and coolest professor on campus). Such is the peril of playing the inspirational teacher. Although, speaking of that, it's an odd reversal seeing Danny Glover play the prejudiced bureaucrat, but he brings a nice paranoia to it.

The final scenes of "Mooz-lum" do a fair job of recapturing the atmosphere of the opening, a nice bounce back from the some of the parts in between. Even with its weaknesses, it's an easy movie to recommend, a story that many audiences can relate to despite being about a very specific culture that often does not get its due on-screen.

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