A powerful premise fizzles fast in this drama about a pair of closeted Muslim teens in New York.
Naz & Maalik
It’s hard not be drawn to a film whose hook focuses on a day in the life of a pair of closeted gay Muslim teens living in New York. The combination has serious potential as it sets up for things like the awkwardness of a blossoming teen love, the fear of being discovered by family and friends who might not understand, the conflict of being an active member in a religious community whose tenets negatively view homosexuality, and the constant hum of suspicion that comes with being part of the Muslim community in post-9/11 New York. All of this potential exists in writer/director Jay Dockendorf’s debut feature, Naz & Maalik.
Maalik (Curtiss Cook Jr.) and Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) are two teens who make money by purchasing lottery tickets, prayer cards, oils, and other small items, and then sell them at a markup to passersby on the sidewalks of Brooklyn. They are also best friends who have recently discovered deeper emotions for each other. Throughout the course of the day, the young men roam the streets selling their trinkets, make time for prayer, and discuss greater social and spiritual issues as well as wrestle with the spiritual and familial ramifications of their relationship. All the while, they are under surveillance by an FBI agent (Annie Grier) who thinks the Muslim boys could be a greater threat.
Yes, all of the potential is there in Naz & Maalik, but it’s potential that is never fully realized. Rather than use weighty issues as something the leads can wrestle with, Dockendorf relies on the leads’ charm to carry the film while peppering the story with only weighty suggestions. The young men spend a fair amount of time walking and talking about heavy topics, but their conversations never delve deep enough to elicit considerable thought from the viewer. It’s as if their conflicts and musings exist solely as some philosophical or intellectual exercise, not discussions that will result in decisions that will have real consequences.
Once the pattern is established that their conversations exist only on a surface level, each subsequent walk and talk become that much more tedious. Dockendorf also spends far too much time showing the boys shopping for their items and then selling them on the street. An 86-minute film has no time to waste on such frivolity, but the endless presentation of meaningless moments suggests the writer/director didn’t know how to properly flesh-out his ideas, leading to stretched out scenes that pad the film.
This shallowness extends to other areas. The boys’ families, the most significant people in their lives (with the exception of each other) and those with a vested interest in what happens, are almost nonexistent. As for the boys’ onscreen spiritual involvement, it’s relegated to one visit to a mosque, a reading from the Quran, and some handwringing about the conflict between sexuality and their faith. I’m not one who needs everything explained, but I do need some ideas to be developed if they are to be believed.
The film also struggles with the entire FBI angle. I understand persons of interest, and I’m willing to go so far as to accept that the FBI agent caught the scent of the two boys based on a mostly bogus (and very racist) tip by a cop early in the film. What rings unbelievable is the subsequent (slow-speed) pursuit of the boys by the agent. She’s more private eye than Fed, and a bad one at that. Again, Dockendorf doggie-paddles on the creative surface instead of deep-diving, this time asking viewers to fill in the FBI blanks based on what Hollywood has taught them about law enforcement, rather than exploring issues like profiling and being profiled.
By the third act, there is trouble in paradise, both between the boys and with the film. For the former, distrust and suspicion begin to fester over the oddest of things. For the latter, the film winds down with a bizarre circumstance involving a live chicken. By the credits, the film has worn out its welcome.
It’s a shame. Jay Dockendorf has a refreshing premise and his stars have charm for days. But all of that quickly fades when nothing of substance develops from the premise, and nothing of consequence leverages that charm. Naz & Maalik is the kind of idea the indie scene wants, but it’s not the kind of film the indie scene needs.
Naz & Maalik opens Friday, January 22nd in New York City. It will be released on DVD & VOD on Tuesday, January 26th.