“Marjoun and the Flying Headscarf” is as mercurial and scattered as its teen heroine, a 17 year-old struggling to process identity, multiple family crises, hormones and the unwanted attentions of “a friend of the family.”
It’s a movie with a lot more promise and ambition than its lurching, stumbling execution can do justice to. The second feature film by Susan Youssef (“Habibi Rasak Kharban”) is a melodrama that teeters between frustrating and infuriating.
Marjoun (Veracity Butcher) is a teenaged daughter of Islamic Lebanese parents, just another high school kid in ripped jeans and black tees coping with high school in the only hometown she’s ever known — Little Rock, Arkansas.
She has a mother (Clara Khoury) who is on medication, given to impulsive rages and naivete that seems as much a part of her culture and upbringing as her mental illness. Marjoun’s little sister (Maram Aljahmi) has taken up the hijab — at age 10 — for reasons never made clear. To please her mother, maybe? That puts a target on her at middle school. She’s being bullied.
And then there’s Dad (Tarek Bishara). He’s in jail on a host of politically popular charges, all stemming from donating cash he earned from the family convenience store to the wrong Middle Eastern groups.
With her testy, can’t-read-English mother checked-out, her sheltered sister who can’t even feed herself and her dad in the clutches of “the system” with only a public defender to help, Marjoun needs to step up. But how?
Marjoun, a smart kid, enters a cash prize essay contest and asks one and all for money to help get her father proper counsel. She even hits up the boy (Alexander Biglane) she’s just started dating.
Her cracked mother makes a bad situation worse by inviting an actor-friend (Dominic Rains) to come “help with the store.” All he wants to help with is Marjoun.
“Sami is a man of God,” Mom prattles, as if she has a clue. Khoury never lets this mother character warrant sympathy. She serves up a mentally ill woman wholly incapable of making adult decisions, slapping and lashing out at her children, “medicated” or not. And she likes the idea of Sami coming on to her teenaged daughter.
Youssef slow-walks her young heroine through this minefield, struggling to show us how someone utterly inexperienced when confronted with all this would try to process it. Marjoun needs to save her father, wants to rally support in their Islamic community, desperately needs cash and has to cope with the cartoonish but criminally serious lechery of a 20something actor who comes on strong.
“Marjoun” slowly whips the viewer back and forth, letting us see rather than have explained to us Marjourn’s decision to “cover up” herself, watching the conflict she’s feeling between her culture and her environment play out over her desire for a motorcycle.
There’s good stuff here — Butcher’s title role turn, for instance. But Youssef loses track of it as she shifts points of view willy nilly and throws everything and anything at this family, little of it landing with any emotional impact.
Rating: TV-MA, violence, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Veracity Butcher, Clara Khoury, Maram Aljahmi, Alexander Biglane, Tarek Bishara and Dominic Rains.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Susan Youssef. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:20