Cannes 2023 review: Inshallah A Boy (Amjad Al Rasheed)

“Al Rasheed demonstrates a steady hand in guiding us unfussily through his well-constructed screenplay.”

One of the most underrated aspects of cinema is the cultural education it provides when representative works from less-understood civilizations find renown on the world stage. Such is the case with Inshallah A Boy, the first Jordanian film to be presented in Cannes – an inclusion that has been an occasion for considerable pride in promising filmmaker Amjad Al Rasheed, making his feature debut here. It has also generated buzz in the modest Jordanian film industry and based on this gripping new film, anticipation for subsequent films from this region should be high.

Inshallah A Boy initially appears to be a film you might see from Iran, as we track a young, working-class, devout Muslim couple raising a daughter. The wife wears the hijab headscarf and the surroundings are convincingly and realistically middle class. Only the language is Arabic instead of Farsi. But soon we see the woman Nawal, without a headscarf, get into bed with her husband and demand sex, something we are unlikely to see in an Iranian film anytime soon. The carefully constructed screenplay even in this early scene begins to show its hand: Nawal and her husband are trying for a new child – they’ve tried just last night – a key detail that is of enormous consequence later on in the film.

The next morning Nawal’s husband suddenly dies. You’d think this would be devastating enough for a woman with a young daughter, but soon the proverbial series of unfortunate events beset her in an escalating avalanche of crises, each more unsolvable than the previous one until it seems Nawal is going to unravel. First, her brother-in-law (the husband’s brother) shows up asking her to repay the loan her husband had taken. She’s completely unaware of such a loan but he has receipts to prove it. The loan was for her husband’s truck which may or may not have to be sold or at least moved from its parking spot, and Nawal can’t drive.

Next Jordanian intestacy laws demand that in the absence of a will, and if there is no male heir of a man who has died without signing a will, the property of the deceased goes to not just the wife and daughter but also the deceased’s siblings. The brother-in-law pounces once again, demanding the sale of the house and his share. As Nawal would be without a home, it would also mean forfeiting custody of her daughter to – once again – the brother-in-law. She is also having issues at her workplace, a rich lady’s home where she works as a caregiver to the lady’s mother. As Thelma Ritter quipped derisively in All About Eve, “Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end”. Yet it is to the screenplay’s enormous credit that, despite what might seem like a pile-on of misery, all conflicts appear to arise organically and the film does not feel heavy-handed.

Two other subplots complicate the storyline and provide enormous cultural interest. Nawal’s employer’s daughter Lauren is a young Jordanian woman who never wears the hijab even in public and openly discusses her sexual needs and lust in graphic terms. She needs to get an abortion because she is unhappily married and cannot stand to have her cheating husband’s child. Her quandary parallels Nawal’s in that Nawal needs to have a child while Lauren needs to lose one. On Lauren’s recommendation, we have the unexpected sight of Nawal checking out shirtless men on a hookup app. There is also Nawal’s co-worker Hassan who is hitting on her and it seems like a revelatory moment in Arabic language cinema when the two passionately lock lips.

The film uses its length judiciously as it packs in quite a lot of incident and action in its nearly 2-hour running time. Also, the dueling predicaments of Nawal and Lauren are ripe for a crackpot melodrama plot but the film resists the urge, instead relying on realism to guide us through the proceedings. 

None of Inshallah A Boy would work without Mouna Hawa as the lead character Nawal. She is in nearly every frame and carries the film with assurance and charisma. Here is an enormously skilled performer, blessed with beauty and talent, that we should surely see in other Arabic-language productions soon. She has the makings of a breakout international star – like some of the stars of Asghar Farhadi’s films. The rest of the cast supports her well with Eslam Al-Awadi (Hassan) a standout as a model of masculine decency in a patriarchal society and Yumna Marwan (Lauren) forceful as a free-spirited young Jordanian woman challenging norms and constraints.

Al Rasheed demonstrates a steady hand in guiding us unfussily through his well-constructed screenplay. The film is shot naturalistically with classical art-film syntax that will make it widely accessible to audiences around the world. This is a compelling debut film, precisely the kind of discovery one hopes to make in the Critics’ Week sidebar at Cannes. Al Rasheed looks primed to work on a bigger canvas and put Jordanian cinema on the map in a meaningful way.