Puppy Love In A Motor City Gas Station: Detroit Unleaded

11/20/2013 4:00 AM |

Detroit Unleaded
Directed by Rola Nashef

We don’t see much of downtown Detroit in writer-director Nashef’s debut fiction feature, but we don’t need to. We hear it, for starters: a medley of car horns, fragments of conversation, fuel pumps and tire squeals. And we see its people; the gas station convenience store where most of the film takes place acts as a cross-section of the city with its endless stream of passing motorists, rowdy teens, bashful middle-schoolers and lost suburbanites. Nashef spends the movie’s first third studying the setting’s internal rhythms, collecting data, making observations, and getting her bearings. And even after the film locks into its principle narrative, about the puppy-love between two young, cooped-up Arab-Americans, it stays rooted in the details of the community—or at least Nashef’s imaginative re-creation of it.

Sami (E.J. Assi) runs the establishment in question, a 24-hour gas station in a high-crime area; ever since his father was gunned down in a holdup, he’s manned the counter from behind a cage of bulletproof glass. Naj (Nada Shouhayib) sells phone cards there on behalf of her possessive, controlling brother. There’s little keeping them together beyond their evident mutual attraction—their conversations rarely move beyond why she doesn’t like red Skittles—and many of the movie’s best scenes find the two of them stuck together inside his glass-walled booth, nerve-rattled, tongue-tied, frightened by their close proximity to one another while fumbling around to try to prolong it.

This kind of wordless attraction—made up equally of terror and excitement; stiff, ritualized behavior; and hasty improv—presents a huge cinematic challenge, but Nashef, with the help of her two gifted stars, usually overcomes it. At their best, these scenes have a delicate, suspended quality that sets them strikingly apart from the rest of this often bustling movie. (Take the shot of the two sweethearts lying on the shelves behind the checkout counter: she on the upper tier, staring into space; he on the lower, gingerly playing with the folds of her shirtsleeve.) Sometimes they feel a little unconvincing or over-determined, but why nitpick? This is a patient, well-observed, and admirably scaled-down film from a director with promise to spare.

Opens November 22