Eran Riklis’ Zaytoun tells the odd-couple story of an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian boy as they journey through peril and personal prejudice toward home and eventually friendship. It’s a promising concept — just watch the trailer above — but Riklis doesn’t get the better of it. Instead, the film flounders in a muddled tone and the muck of sentimentalism.

The setting is Beirut, 1982. The Israeli military is pushing PLO fighters out of Lebanon, and the young Fahed (Abdallah El Akal) is busy skipping school to sell chewing gum and cigarettes. He’s also training with his local PLO, dreaming vaguely of retaking Palestine while otherwise just wanting to goof off with his friends. But when a night-time bomb raid kills his father, Fahed’s dream becomes much more defined.

That dream — of connecting with the land of his ancestors — suddenly seems possible when an Israeli jet spits out its pilot within eye-shot of the monkey bars in the PLO training ground. Fahed and his Palestinian friends imprison the pilot (Stephen Dorff), and before long Fahed gives his prisoner a choice: stay behind bars, or take me across the border, to Palestine, to Israel, to my home.

Thus begins the adventure, which at first seems fraught with the threat of random violence. But the danger the two reluctant partners encounter doesn’t ever amount to much. And often, the efforts of their adversaries — whether they be border guards or Syrian soldiers — seem pathetic, comically so.

The resulting lightness of the road story grates particularly hard against Dorff’s performance. The American actor’s forced accent and overly gruff delivery grinds his character down to that of a B-grade Jack Bauer. English, it should be said, is the language the pilot and Fahed share, even though multiple classroom shots show the boy is still learning simple English verb conjugation. But we can let that pass.

What isn’t as easily forgivable is the way the script pulls mushy sentiment from symbolism. One of the film’s key symbols is an olive tree — “zaytoun” in Arabic means olive tree — and Fahed carries one in his backpack with the hope of planting it in his family’s garden. Seeing El Akal run about with a tree on his person has a lovely visual quality, but the symbol of the olive branch as peace offering comes off as rather vapid.

Effectively, this is a Hallmark-card version of the Israeli-Palestinian friendship narrative. Moral being: a seed of hope has been planted. However, the film never artfully addresses the goliath of conflict and sadness that overshadows the film’s historical context. These friends, after all, are bound to a tragedy: their respective peoples will continue battling each other, and one wishes Zaytoun dealt better with that giant in the room.

Zaytoun is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

Part fairy tale, part old-school James Bond flick, The Zigzag Kid is the fantasy-filled telling of a young Dutch boy’s Bar Mitzvah adventure through 1970s Europe to discover who is mother was and how she died.

The just-about-to-be 13 Nono Feuerberg (Thomas Simon) tells his slippery and silly story to us so as to explain himself as he enters adulthood. At the beginning of the tale, we find him trying to be like his father (Fedja van Huêt), the best inspector in Europe. The super-cop is a workaholic, who never talks about his former wife. All Nono knows of his mother is that she died when he was young. As such, she’s a mystery at the center of his being. Like his father, the soon-to-be teenager is attentive to detail, but his lofty imagination gets him in all sorts of trouble when his plans crumble to pieces, or catch fire.

To get him into inspector-shape, his pops sends him off to live with his boring, socks-and-sandals uncle. On the train ride, however, Nono meets Felix Glick, a man who knew Nono’s father and who convinces the kid he’s there to give him special inspector training. Minutes later, Nono and Felix are holding up trains, running from the cops and just cruising about France incognito. And just as inspector work comes naturally to Nono, so do acts of crime. Turns out: Felix is a master criminal. When Nono realizes he’s been kidnapped, he threatens to run back to his father but stays after learning Felix knows a thing or two about his mother.

From here the movie spirals all over the place and dives into a subplot about Nono’s father learning to love again. The tone is uber-cartoony. Stealing a cop car, for instance, seems more like a clever prank than a felony. And the film’s best quality is that it’s filled with dream sequences and flash-backs that seamlessly flesh out the the story while simultaneous letting us explore Nono’s imagination. It’s also a joy to report that the movie’s dream effects aren’t all CGI, they’re the old-school kind that pull poetry from everyday objects — cupboards, animals, chocolate.

What’s tricky about The Zigzag Kid is figuring out who it’s for. It seems too goofy to be for teenagers, but it’s not quite a kids movie either. Perhaps this is something geared toward a Dutch audience…I can’t say. But if it’s a kid’s flick, it’s main moral take-away is one not quite as goofy as the movie’s tone. We zigzag, the movie says, we’re both here and there. Just as we might be careful and caring, we’re also impulsive and selfish; and that mix of contradictory traits make us who we are.

The Zigzag Kid is playing at the St. Anthony Main Theatre. It’s directed by Vincent Bal.


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