The young protagonist of Eran Riklis’ “A Borrowed Identity” fits the coming-of-age mold nicely. He is smart but emotionally complex. His family life features great love, but also paternal upset. His long-term plans are a bit sketchy.
Above all else, he is dropped into a situation in which he is different from his fellow teenagers in one key respect: Eyad is a Palestinian-Israeli, an Arab trying to fit in at a predominantly Jewish school in Jerusalem.
This is the hook of a film based on Sayed Kashua’s novel “Dancing Arabs,” and it is a good one. Unfortunately, while the concept is certainly unique, the film is not. It’s an adequate, worthy production, but one that never quite surprises or makes a case for lasting significance.
Still, teenage audiences, especially, will find much to chew on. “A Borrowed Identity” is certainly a stronger coming-of-age tale, for example, than the overrated “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
Yes, it is a subtitled, Hebrew-language drama, and features some brief nudity, but one of its successes is demonstrating that many of the issues teenagers face in North America exist in some form around the world – even amidst the greater tensions of 1990s Israel, and the Middle East at large.
When we first meet Eyad, he is a young adult (played by Razi Gabareen) attempting to learn how his politically active father ended up a common fruit picker. “Why? Because of the state,” explains his grandmother. “How? Because he got involved in politics.”
We jump ahead several years to teenage Eyad, now played by the poised young actor Tawfeek Barhom. He has been accepted into a boarding school in Jerusalem, and leaves home with great reservation.
“Welcome,” says one of the first adults he speaks to. “I didn’t realize they accepted Arabs here.”
Eyad encounters the usual bullies, but also becomes friends with the Jewish Naomi (Danielle Kitzis). She offers some tips on blending in, including the common pronunciation of words starting with “p.” (At home, the “p” is often pronounced as a “b” – as in “Barliament.”)
Time jumps ahead once more and Eyad and Naomi are in love, but attempting to keep their relationship quiet. He has become a popular student and friend to his Jewish classmates.
Eyad forms a particularly close friendship with Jonathan (Michael Moshonov), a music-mad teen with muscular dystrophy. This relationship is crucial to the film’s second half, for better or worse.
While it’s nice to see a prominent character with a disability on screen, the time away from school is, quite simply, less involving. Moshonov gives a strong performance, as does Yael Abecassis as his mother, but the scenes between Eyad and Jonathan begin to feel repetitive and dull.
However, this relationship is essential to the film’s “twist,” and it explains the significance of the title “A Borrowed Identity.” Without detailing what occurs, Eyad makes a crucial decision that will impact his life. In the context of the film, the move seems abrupt, and not altogether satisfying.
For all of its flaws, this latest entry from the director of international successes “The Syrian Bride” and “Lemon Tree” remains a distinctive entry in the global coming-of-age catalog, thanks mainly to its fresh milieu and sturdy central performances.
Barhom makes Eyad a strong-willed, often rebellious individual. He is an actor to watch. Also noteworthy is Danielle Kitzis, whose Naomi feels wonderfully real and delightfully wise – a strong female attempting to keep her relationship with Eyad alive and healthy amidst difficult circumstances.
“A Borrowed Identity” will not linger in one’s memory for long, but it deserves to be seen, and contemplated. Plus, there is a scene in which a character thinks he spots Saddam Hussein’s face on the moon. That has to be a coming-of-age flick first.
A Borrowed Identity
Starring: Tawfeek Barhom, Michael Moshonov, Yael Abecassis, Daniel Kitsis
Director: Eran Riklis
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rating: Not rated, but PG-13 equivalent with brief nudity and adult situations. In Hebrew with subtitles.
The Lowdown: A Palestinian-Israeli boy is sent to a prestigious boarding school in Jerusalem, where he struggles with language, culture and identity.