‘The Space Between’ tests cultural bounds

On Saturday, the 12th season of the Williamstown Film Festival (WFF) kicked off at Images. WFF is an annual event which stretches over two weekends to bring independent films, filmmakers and audiences all together. The whole process transforms the local film house from the familiar one-feature-a-week affair into a forum, where new artistic ideas are thrown before the public and, with director Q&A sessions adding a mother-in-law dimension to the viewer/film marriage, are discussed and interrogated. The Space Between, the first film shown by WFF this year, was followed by an iChat discussion with director Trevor Fine.

The Space Between was an emotionally dense one whose intensity never became overbearing or smothering, largely due to the simplicity of the narrative and the well-paced exposition of character histories. The plot centers on two characters: cynical, near-alcoholic flight attendant Montine McCloud (Oscar nominee Melissa Leo) and Omar Hassan (Anthony Keyvan), an extremely intelligent Pakistani-American 10-year-old whose high IQ has scored him a spot at an exclusive Muslim Los Angeles boarding school.

Omar’s father, a New York taxi driver, is reluctant but sends his son to the school after their lives are threatened during a late-night taxi drive. Alternating between scenes of Omar’s close relationship and life with his father are completely different scenes showing a tense, acerbic flight attendant, Montine, who snaps at “an overgrown frat boy” and downs minibottles of ambiguously labeled hard liquor.

Part of the beauty of The Space Between arises from bringing these two characters, so unlike one another, together in an ultimately logical way. The two finally meet as Omar’s father leaves him at the airport, assigned as an unaccompanied minor to Montine’s care. After the first attack takes place, all planes are grounded and Omar finds himself in Montine’s custody for an undetermined time. Omar, upon learning what has caused the grounding, demands that Montine take him home to see his father who, in addition to driving cabs, also works in a restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Montine gives in to his request and the two begin a trip back to New York, a journey which becomes an indirect portrait of a country in turmoil following tragedy. Omar’s status as a devout Muslim exposes him to outbursts of violent hatred that invoke several conflations and a collapsing of personal identity: Montine’s attempts to remind a driver and his passengers that Omar is “just a child” do nothing to prevent them from being ejected after his choice to kneel and pray in the back of a bus. These reductive relationships are generally turned on their perpetrators in the form of caricature to an extent matching the increasing complexity of the two main characters.

The sensitivity with which these roles are played by Leo and Keyvan keeps these characters from sinking into the trap of easy sympathy, and demands engaged and thoughtful viewing. Leo’s Montine is a woman in deep pain. She becomes a woman who is brittle without being depthless, and whose emotion seeps from her rather than being even slightly performed or artificially polished. Keyvan’s performance is one that balances Omar’s vast intelligence and insightfulness with his desire to be faithful to his religion and his somewhat naïve belief that the world is simple. As portrayed by Keyvan, Omar’s gifts never degrade into gimmicks and his maturity becomes a necessary grounding for the film.

Yet their situation is not entirely lacking humor, as their improvised transportation – a graffitied and ragged Volvo – is compared to a blue, clean SUV with miniature American flag driven by a stereotypical “soccer mom.” For a second, we’re allowed to believe that a win-win happy ending might arise from the horrible situation of these characters. But the blaring mortality of their car only points out the instrumentality of these two to one another. Their bonds and similarities never run deep enough to erase their pasts, though they are sufficient to temporarily bridge the gap.

The Space Between stumbles only in its very last scene, when it tries to resolve all tensions and questions at once. In trying to explicitly tie the title to the film, Fine overlooks the fact that extreme emotional experiences have their own powerful sovereignty, one that places individuals into complicated relationships even with those who have suffered the same.

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