“Don’t raise your voice, men don’t like women who raise their voices.”
“Remember to always say a kind word, and cook him good food.”
“Don’t forget to put on perfume and to keep your body smooth, so that when he desires you, he’ll know where to find you.”
“In bed, do what he tells you to. Don’t let on that you know what you’re doing.”
A woman armed with sugaring caramel offers this advice to begin Maysaloun Hamoud‘s directorial debut, with a score of only the sounds of her customer’s gasps of pain as she removes her leg hair. “In Between” cuts to its opening credits, set to clubby Middle Eastern music DJ’ed by Salma (Sana Jammelieh) while we meet Laila (Mouna Hawa) smoking and snorting. Hamoud quickly introduces us to the worlds her trio of heroines straddle in Tel Aviv, stuck between the traditions and expectations of the old world and the pleasures and freedom of the new. She explores a variety of Palestinian female experiences in the Israeli city, offering insight into lives beyond what is generally shown on screen.
“In Between” centers on three roommates: Lalia, a lawyer who spends her off hours partying in Tel Aviv’s underground clubs; Salma, a lesbian DJ and bartender; and Nour (Shaden Kanboura), a Muslim student who has just moved in. Each of the women stands at a different place in her life and in Tel Aviv’s society, and Hamoud’s film examines how they interact with it and with each other. Nur wears a hijab, and her conservative Muslim fiancé Wissam (Henry Andrawes) worries she’ll be influenced by her partying roommates’ wild ways. Salma tries to get her career as a DJ going, while she hides her sexuality from her strict Christian parents who are intent on setting her up with a man. Laila is successful in her job as a defense lawyer, but she learns that the man she is dating is more traditional than she’d thought. Nour feels like a third wheel in the apartment until a traumatic event cements her relationship with her roommates.
Salma is the least developed of the three, with Jammelieh often given less to do than her co-stars. As the sheltered Nour, Kanboura ably communicates her quiet strength and the moments where she begins to expand the world she has known. But it’s Hawa who feels like the revelation here: she’s fierce in her friendships and in court, and a magnetic force to everyone around her.
“In Between” feels so of this moment that you almost assume you’ll see 2018 calendars on the wall in the women’s apartment. The clash between Israelis and Palestinians is in the background, but the film focuses more on the challenges Laila, Salma and Nour face as women in changing times. Despite the differences Hamoud’s screenplay establishes between each of the characters and their situations, they’re united in their desire to break from what’s expected of them, particularly as some of the men they know reveal a gap between their private and public personae. Their individual scenes sometimes slow the film down, but each time they’re together results in the film’s best moments. “In Between” could also do better to establish the passage of time; we don’t get a good sense of how long the women have lived together or they’ve each been with their partners.
Where “In Between” does succeed is in showing the relationship between the women and in refusing to judge them for their choices. Relatable roommate drama simmers, with fights around bathroom access and cleanliness, but it adds complexity and a sense of reality. Despite these small disagreements, there’s real loyalty, tenderness and affection between Laila, Salma and Nour. When they stand together against the insidiousness of expectations as well as more blatant attacks, it unites both the trio and the audience with them. [B+]