The Muslim Boy At The Yeshiva

In ‘David,’ a story of interfaith friendship manages to avoid feel-good clichés.

09/06/2011
Special to the Jewish Week
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Any time you have two schoolboys of different ethnicities thrown together in a drama, there is the danger of creating an after-school special, one of those facile, rather fatuous feel-good movies in which everyone comes to love one another, regardless of any social reality and regardless of the outside world. So when someone tells you that “David,” a new indie film from writer-directors Joel Fendelman and Patrick Daly is about a couple of 11-year-olds, one Muslim the other an Orthodox Jew, who become friends due to a misunderstanding, you might expect the worst. Happily, although the subplots of “David” are rather predictable, the central relationships ring true in a film that offers no forced happy endings.

Daud (Muatasem Mishal) is the dutiful son of a somewhat distant father Ahmed (Maz Jobrani), an imam of stern visage with high expectations for his only male offspring. When Daud finds a volume of Torah left in the park by a group of Jewish kids, he attempts to return it to their school but, in a thoroughly believable series of mishaps, he finds himself spending his summer days as a student in the local yeshiva, with his new peers believing him to be a Mizrahi Jew named David. He develops a particularly close friendship with Yoav (Binyomin Shtaynberger) when the two are put together on a research project about family history.

Fendelman and Daly actually handle this potentially saccharine story adroitly. “David” is a low-key film in which the daily routines of family life — doing laundry, buying food, clothes shopping, meals — are given as much screen time as the drama that runs alongside them. It’s an effective method of grounding that drama in the real world of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and keeping the audience aware of the balance of the ordinary and the potentially fraught that is the nature of life for all but a few of us. They also bring a tender sense of the interconnectedness of their characters within the family and community units.

Where the film stumbles a bit is in the use of a subplot involving Aishah (Dina Shihabi), Daud’s older sister, a brilliant student who has been offered a full scholarship to Stanford University. Her parents are proud but understandably reluctant to let her go 3,000 miles away for four years. She considers accepting an arranged marriage as a way of securing the right to move, but that almost immediately looks like an even worst alternative. As a way of establishing the secondary theme of the difficult relationship between religious belief and modernity, her dilemma is rather hackneyed. We’ve seen this story before in films set in just about every traditional family since the beginning of cinema and, despite a lovely performance from Shihabi, “David” brings nothing new to this particular narrative line.

Where the film is more firmly grounded, though, is the casually energetic way that boys bond and the pecking orders that emerge organically in such groups. The chemistry between Mishal and Shtaynberger is muted but genuine, and the boys, although not trained actors, are both charming. Equally effective, although not particularly original, is the push-pull of Daud’s relationship with his father, an occasionally vertiginous tug-of-war of pride, love, expectations and disappointments, discipline and caring. Jobrani, a stand-up comic who has appeared on HBO’s Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, is being considered for a new sitcom on ABC. He is a significant presence, grounding the film in community and family is compelling ways. Although his character as written is somewhat by-the-numbers, the performance is understated and gives the impression of a man going through a more complex version of the same internal struggles that his son is experiencing for the first time.

Ultimately, despite the familiarity of many of the elements in “David,” the film’s quiet confidence makes it a satisfying debut for both its director-writers and, particularly, for the boys at its center.

“David,” directed and written by Joel Fendelman and Patrick Daly, will be having sneak previews on Sept. 8 and 11 at the JCC in Manhattan (Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street); the Sept. 8 screenings will take place at 7:30 p.m., the Sept. 11 event at 4 p.m. For information, go to www.jccmanhattan.org. The film will have its theatrical opening at the Quad Cinema (34 W. 13th St.) shortly after. For information, go to www.quadcinema.com.

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