Steel Magnolias and rework it into something a bit less maudlin, and relocate the action to a Beirut beauty shop instead of the American South, the outcome might resemble Lebanese director and star Nadine Labaki's debut feature, a brisk dramatic comedy that combines melodrama, humor and social critique in equal measure.
The setting is Beirut's Si Bella salon, an upscale beauty parlor where middle-class Lebanese women congregate to exchange gossip, get their hair done and have unwanted hair removed with caramel, that sticky-sweet cooked-sugar confection that can also serve as an effective depilatory. The shop is run by Layale (Labaki), an independent Christian businesswoman who is nevertheless trapped in an adulterous affair with Rabih, a married man whom she hopes, like so many other women in her position, will eventually leave his wife. Layale is all business until her cell phone rings; she then rushes off to meet Rabih for a quick snack and snog, leaving the shop in the care of Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), a Muslim beauty with a serious problem of her own. Nisrine is about to marry into a strict Muslim family, but worries that, come her wedding night, her unsuspecting husband (Ismail Antar) will realize that she's not a virgin. Nisrine also takes over for Jamale (Gisele Aouad), a former soap-opera actress who leaves her post at the shop to audition for parts she's now too old to play, and who goes to extraordinary lengths to hide her age. The youngest of Layale's crew is Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), a twentysomething toughie with daringly close-cropped hair who finds herself increasingly attracted to a beautiful new client who comes to the salon only to have her hair washed — specifically by Rima.
Labaki's surprisingly accomplished film also takes in the surrounding neighborhood and its characters: Youssef (Adel Karam), the beat cop who obviously loves Layale, and Rose (Siham Haddad), a local seamstress who, after devoting her life to caring for her demanding, mentally ill sister (Aziza Semaan), considers taking a shot at having a life of her own. The result is a warm, often very funny tribute to the power of friendship among women, and to the city in which it all unfolds. Labaki — a stunningly beautiful talent who, along with Al Masri, deserves a big international career — dedicates her first film to "My Beirut," a vital, cosmopolitan place at odds with the embattled image known to the rest of the world. Whether the setting is the city she knows or the one she hopes for isn't certain, but it's a lovely gesture nonetheless. leave a comment --Ken Fox