★★★ OUT OF FOUR STARS
Rating: PG-13 for brief drug use involving teens, some language. In English and Arabic, subtitled. • Where: Edina.
Director Cherien Dabis' debut feature is a surprising, humorous, moving and very human story about a Palestinian family's emigration to Illinois on the eve of the Iraq war. Muna is a single mom living on the West Bank, but women anywhere can relate: Her mother is a nag, her husband left her for a younger, slimmer model, and her job as a bank administrator is a low-grade headache. She also faces the unique stresses of life in occupied territory, maintaining a cheerful can-do attitude, even when she wipes away tears in private.
Back in her married days, her husband applied for a U.S. green card. When it belatedly arrives, she decides that relocating with relatives outside Chicago is the best option for her college-bound teenage son. Her entry interview with an O'Hare Airport passport officer is a comedy of errors. ("Occupation?" "Yes, we have been occupied for years.") That's just a taste of the adjustment process ahead.
The film looks at Muna's new world with a gently satirical eye. It's a sociological scramble of fast-food restaurants and diet pills, racist jerks and cross-cultural romance, wide-open opportunities and stubbornly closed doors. Nisreen Faour is endearing as Muna, whose charm is so radiant that you can believe her supervisor at a burger joint would turn a blind eye when she feeds her co-workers falafel and Arab soft drinks. The film makes political points too, but gently. The portable sign outside Muna's drive-up window is missing a couple of letters from its patriotic sentiment: SUPPORT OUR OOPS.
★★★ OUT OF FOUR STARS
Rating: Unrated. In Japanese, subtitled. • Where: Lagoon.
"Still Walking" strikes an extraordinary balance between the moment-to-moment pleasure of life and the inevitable regret that accompanies time's passing. It's a fresh, lovely, humorous family drama in which little happens but much is revealed.
The Yokoyama family reunites each year to commemorate the oldest son, Junpei, who died rescuing a young swimmer. Younger son Ryota, now pushing 40, is an art restorer who has married a widowed single mother. Visiting his parents' home, he lives in the shadow of his brother's ghost.
Each of the cast faces a great acting challenge. Yoshio Harada, playing the self-absorbed, stern father, snipes at his wife and kids constantly, yet he's wistfully nostalgic. As Ryota, Hiroshi Abe must be subtly resentful without losing our sympathy. Yui Natsukawa gives a stunning performance as his politely smiling wife. None of them is without weakness, yet there's a decency, almost a tenderness, in the way that the film is fair to everyone.
Director Hirokazu Koreeda negotiates the heavy themes with a light touch. He has immense pictorial gifts, composing deep-focus frames that bustle with activity or sit intimately quiet. He holds on faces long enough for us to register which characters have trouble looking at each other. The camera moves seldomly, and with little fanfare. In his offhand way he seems to say, "Look how easy it is to understand people -- all it takes is close observation of daily life." You could complain that the pacing is monotonous, but you feel you're eavesdropping on the quiet joys and sadness of real life.