“Do you ever do anything because you want to?” That question, asked by the college-aged Bedouin woman Layla (Lamis Ammar) in Israeli director’s Elite Zexer’s quietly observant debut, speaks to the movie’s underlying issues. The stripped-down drama, set almost entirely within the constraints of the traditionalist village where Layla grew up, pits her individualism against the rituals that keep her there. A resolutely small work focused on Layla’s attempts to avoid a pre-arranged marriage, “Sand Storm” offers a unique window into an arena of limited possibilities.
At the core of the movie is a unique conflict. Layla’s father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), drifts in and out of her home, exchanging pleasantries and maintaining a relationship with Layla’s mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal), even as he prepares to wed his second wife. At that celebration, Jalila discovers that Layla has become romantically involved with a young man from her university, a development that runs counter to the local standards. Their initial confrontation is a heartbreaking showdown between two strong-willed women with wildly different standards, and the actresses bring a naturalism to the scene that sets the stage for the story to come.
As Layla grows increasingly frustrated with her mother’s oppressive stance, “Sand Storm” shifts from a black-and-white scenario to shades of grey. Rather than being purely judgmental, Jalila’s maternal instincts involve her own need to protect her daughter from the rest of the community discovering her indiscretions. Meanwhile, Layla’s young sister, Tasmin, lurks about, watching from the sidelines and attempting to make sense of the complex intergenerational tensions in play. Zexer seamlessly shifts perspectives between each character’s understanding of the logic dictating their world, and even as Layla remains the central protagonist, the movie doesn’t quite take sides so much as it passively observes the different perspectives in play.
The premise doesn’t stretch much farther than that, but the contained setting enhances Layla’s mounting anxiety with each passing scene. While it seems to build toward a major confrontation, Zexer’s script is riddled with ambiguities about each character’s allegiances. Suliman himself, settled next door with his new bride, clearly wants what’s best for his daughter — but like her, he can’t escape the expectations surrounding them. The reddish hues of the desert landscape epitomize these characters’ solitude as they keep finding themselves devoid of alternatives.
With its forward-looking vision of young women trapped in a narrow-minded household against their will, “Sand Storm” bears a noticeable similarity to last year’s Turkish drama “Mustang” (currently nominated for the foreign language Oscar). In both cases, characters born into oppression struggle to peer beyond their borders and imagine something better. Like “Mustang,” Zexer envions socially unacceptable contact with the opposite gender setting off a firestorm of angry reactions. But while “Mustang” finds the free-spirited protagonists escaping their imprisonment, Layla faces a more uneasy set of options. Tenderly portrayed by newcomer Ammar, she’s too firmly rooted in her society to instantly turn her back on it.
By throwing viewers into the middle of this insular world and letting them sort out its rules, Zexer’s style borders on anthropological. At times, the scenario strains from a sparsity of details dictating Layla’s decisions. While presumably secularized to some degree by her studies, she barely speaks to those concerns.
Nevertheless, “Sand Storm” maintains a thrilling degree of uneasiness by implication: Nobody wants exactly the same thing, but no one thing will make everyone happy. While Layla’s situation raises specific concerns, the constant gaze from her younger sibling suggests that the movie’s central conundrum belongs to a larger social problem. Rather than proposing solutions or envisioning a tight happy ending, “Sand Storm” lingers in the crevices of a fascinating cultural challenge.
“Sand Storm” premiered on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.