In Between is fabulous, though frustrating in its limitations.
Fans of Lena Dunham’s “Girls” and Andrew Haigh’s lesser-known series “Looking” will instantly feel at home with the sharp, cosmopolitan sensibility of Maysaloun Hamoud’s excellent debut feature In Between. From the start, there are millennial characters regularly downing drinks, smoking cigarettes and snorting drugs in hip, urban settings. They also traverse a cultural minefield laden with gender politics, sexual assault, homophobia and a cornucopia of other macro-aggressions both religious and secular. But, like a Royale® with Cheese served at a Parisian McDonald’s, the little differences, here much larger than a mere name change, stand out and seem revelatory.
Which is to say, In Between’s HBO-style familiarity comes with a crucial twist. Its trio of heroines are Palestinians living in Tel Aviv, semi-outsiders at once integrated by geography and set apart, in varying degrees, by ethnicity, language and religion. This may sound solemn and ponderous, but Hamoud’s screenplay is the exact opposite: lived-in, intimate, genuine and, often, funny. As a writer, Hamoud holds a grenade with a light touch. As a filmmaker, she has a keen eye for heightened, stylized realism, much like the idealized, outdoorsy San Francisco of Haigh’s “Looking.”
In Between tells the story of three roommates: Layla (played by Mouna Hawa, with maximum stoicism and glamor), a defense attorney with a penchant for partying; her gay friend Salma (Sana Jammelieh, quietly powerful), a bartender and aspiring DJ and the conservative Nur (the remarkable Shaden Kanboura, the lone protagonist wrapped in a hijab), a computer science student and newcomer to the apartment. Romantic entanglements unfortunately define, or at least dominate, their narrative arcs. Layla meets a sophisticated beau (the dashing Mahmud Shalaby) who doesn’t live up to his promise. Salma falls for a professional woman (Ashlam Canaan) her Christian parents will never accept. Nur is betrothed to a monster (Henry Andrawes) whom she despises and is out-of-step with her burgeoning liberal sensibilities.
Despite these plot-driven couplings, In Between is about far more than the complications of romance or the hot-button topics the film dramatizes along the way. Its central thrust is the growing and deepening bond that connects Layla, Salma and Nur. Their friendship, and their mutual protectiveness, is the fruit from which Hamoud wrings the most juice. Say what you will about “Sex and the City,” the ur-premium-cable dramedy, but by the time In Between concludes, its women are as identifiable—and recognizable as individual archetypes—as Carrie Bradshaw and her crew. (For the record: I’m a Layla, through and through.)
This, in the end, is both In Between’s fundamental strength and weakness. It leaves us wanting more. Hamoud’s tale exists in the wrong medium. With its busy plot and distinctive setting, this is a film that establishes characters we come to love in a place we want to inhabit week after week. In Between is fabulous, though frustrating in its limitations. Maybe it’s a salvo to the executives of network and cable television and the panoply of competing streaming platforms: a great series is within your grasp. Take it.