Just as the United States continues to endure the side effects of a refugee crisis miles and miles away, one of our neighbors on the other side of the Atlantic may have forever immortalized their own common minded crisis onto film. Ben Sharrock’s (Pikadero) recent directorial effort Limbo captures that precarious strife of a Syrian refugee looking to blend into his new surroundings on the way to more permanent residency, narrowly avoiding deportation. His story echoes the wails of many, and yet its intimacy has no trouble being prudently one-on-one.
We are introduced to the shy, nervy Omar (Amir El-Masry). An amateur musician just moved to a quiet island on the outskirts of Scotland from unstable footing in Syria. Only holding a suitcase and a rare instrument in both hands, he is one in a moderate sized group stuck in a holding pattern awaiting confirmation on permanent asylum. Until then, they are ineligible for unemployment and required to attend workshops on how to best belong in a very different society unlike their own.
Omar’s passion for music may be the only thing solidifying his sanity while patience grows stagnant among his exhausted peers. Specifically the expert strumming of an Arabic oud, passed down to him by his grandfather before fleeing away. The longer he is trapped in this personal isolation, the more determined Omar presents himself to shape his destiny to elevate above working class.
Quite the tight wire act Sharrock develops in this raw, up close character prose. Wherein conformity compounds personal freedom and dry wit lessens the tension of failed kinship. Think Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, albeit slower to burn its fuse to further broaden its focus. Omar, and El-Masry’s portrayal is steady at the forefront, leaving one mighty footprint as the story unravels. It’s one terrific performance whose roots bury deep in the truthful scenario around him. And whose weary perspective leaves at least one eye open to those nearby dealing with similar frustration.
Moreover, it is all very true to personal experience. On his own career journey, Sharrock stood shoulder to shoulder among refugees in Algeria and Syria documenting the impatience there. And in the process, transcribing his accounts into a cinematic dissertation with a few wry jokes thrown in. Granted, not much of the plight itself justifies a humorous backbone. The real-life counterpart to this wild tale was not very lucky. But where the mind wanders off to and how it perceives the facet of boredom, that in itself is comical to a fault. Sharrock isn’t ashamed to let that side out without appearing disingenuous or veering too far off base.
The countryside surroundings and partial image filling (in other words, window boxing), both excellent visual choices well handled by DoP Nick Cooke (Pond Life), support Sharrock’s minimally stylistic vision simply by keeping it grounded deep. And a little uncomfortable. For Omar, he can’t complain, as it’s not in his nature. Nevertheless, the weather in such a distant location can’t be quiet or indignant. It is brutal, cold and windy. It eats away at Omar’s resolve like ice cream in the sun; it’s a tough fight. And a welcome challenge for the well-established Al-Masry, best known stateside for a supporting role in Amazon’s Jack Ryan. Here, he has the open forum to play an unconventional character role, far outside his territory of expertise. It feels close to form nonetheless, constructing a web of emblematic intelligibility extending well past his own character arc. That idea rubs off appropriately on Omar’s father (Nayef Rashed), tagging along on merits of moral support. On newfound ally Farhad (Vikash Bhai), a person reservedly panging for solidarity. And on the stoic Boris (Kenneth Collard), a multi-cultural instructor whose physical range of motion speaks a louder volume than his voice leading those witty classroom scenes.
For all those moments where wittiness equates to catching one’s breath, Sharrock steers his audience back in the right direction long enough to deepen that feeling of windswept ardor in a period of restlessness. Limbo matches its simplistic title, and then some, broadening the scope of such a profound word, and encapsulating the emotion around it without a second thought. Executed with a beautiful look and sound, it accomplishes the unexpected gut punch such a quiet, honest, uniquely cinematic framing of modern life can bet. And at a time where stories like Omar’s should grow in priority for filmmakers, that may be more than welcome. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up)
Limbo is currently playing in select theaters, VOD to follow later in May; rated R for language; 104 minutes.