The mother’s angry retort to her college-age daughter is accusing, questioning and pleading all at once.
“Do you want to leave?”
There’s an ironic “all this” missing in that bark. They’re Bedouin, goat farmers, living in Israel. They re-purpose shipping palettes as fencing, keep that beater Toyota diesel pickup with mismatched body parts well past its expiration date and they live in a country where they’re an abused minority within an abused minority, apt to lose their home to government seizure, fines or suspicions of disloyalty.
Jalila (Ruba Blal), the mother, just told her husband “Have fun” as he departed with his new, younger second wife for a honeymoon. This was after she loaded a new bed into Suliman’s new house, much more nicely appointed than the one Jalila and their three children together share.
She’s in the middle of cleaning up from the wedding banquet. The generator quit — the food left in the tiny fridge spoiled, and the washing machine won’t work without power. She’s about to clean every linen and article of clothing in the house, by hand.
And her pretty college girl daughter, Layla (Lamis Ammar), has just told her that she’s “in love” with the boy Mom caught her swapping phone messages with at school, a guy outside their tribe and one who will never earn Suliman’s approval…just because.
Jalila isn’t just having a bad day. She’s pissed. And how her pride and joy, the college girl, the one her father lets drive — when the rest of the village can’t see them — has gone and fallen in love against a list of mores and traditions that all point to one thing. There’s going to be hell to pay.
“Sand Storm” is a tempest in a teapot, an intimate domestic drama that can feel alien to Western eyes — until the daughter starts acting out. If feels even more relatable when Layla’s little sister starts mouthing off, too.
Boorish, selfish Dad (Hitham Omari) seems disconnected from this world, either lost int the arms of the new brokered bride (Elham Araf) or off with the men — male bonding that we never really see.
Because this Elite Zexer film is a women’s world. Layla’s dreamboat (Jalal Masrwa) may make with the moon-eyes, suggest they “run away” and fret over her father “cutting my head off” (in Arabic, with English subtitles) because “that’s what I would do” in his shoes.
But it is Jalila and Layla who have to work this out, through fights with all the violence of sullen silence, acts of defiance, a marriage imperiled and a daughter’s future on the line in a culture struggling to hang on to its theocratic patriarchy just a little bit longer.
“Sand Storm” builds a sense of dread into the proceedings. It’s not literal “head cut off” violence that we fear. It’s the victims getting nothing out of all this acrimony and negotiation. It’s knowing this film will never deliver “a Hollywood ending.”
Dad is the offender, the oppressor, the symbolic enforcer of their ties to the past.
“Didn’t you embarrass me enough for one day?
He’s a real piece of work, wearing out the phrase “I have no choice” when no, it’s his wives and daughters who have no choice.
The women, including Jalila’s mother, do every thing they do out of fear of the recriminations that come with not keeping up appearances, adhering to traditions.
Blal tumbles deep into character as Jalila, furious and fearful and hoping for better things for her daughter.
Ammar ably tightrope-walks Layla through her cusp of womanhood passage — young enough to be impulsive, but old enough to weigh all the outcomes of her actions and what they will mean for her mother.
They make “Sand Storm” a subtle tug-of-war, a peek into a fenced-in world of frustration and limited horizons. We viewers have the luxury of shouting an instant answer to Jalila’s big question.
“Do you want to leave?”
Layla’s options are far more circumscribed. Her mother knows it, too. And it’s infuriating them both.
MPAA Rating: TV PG-13, profanity
Cast: Lamis Ammar, Ruba Blal, Hitham Omari, Jalal Masrwa and Elham Araf.
Credits: Written and directed by Elite Zexer A Kino Lorber/Netflix release.
Running time: 1:27