Wed. Oct 16th, 2019

Toronto Review: Coming-of-age during wartime love story ‘1982’ is well-intentioned but doesn’t quite gel

Oualid Mouaness’ debut feature is an uneven story about love in the middle of war

Making his feature debut after a successful career in directing music videos, Lebanon’s Oualid Mouaness’ 1982 is a mixed bag of emotion, low-stakes, half-baked ideas and some compelling themes that don’t quite come together. Set in 1982 just in time for the invasion of Lebanon, Mouaness recreates some of his own experiences and weaves them with a sentimental love story between a boy and a girl. A story about unspoken love, unfulfilled dreams and constant fear of what tomorrow might bring, 1982 may have modest commercial appeal back home but is unlikely to travel further.

In 1982, and as Lebanon is under attack, a private school on the outskirts of Beirut is coming to terms with what is likely going to be an abrupt ending to the school year and perhaps a definitive halt to the final exams period. 11-year old Wissam has one goal in the middle of all the chaos: he wants to tell his classmate that he loves her. As easy as this might sound, Wissam faces several challenges and when war comes knocking on the school’s door, everything goes opposite to plan. Meanwhile, his teacher Yesmine (Nadine Labaki, the film’s best performance despite being a thinly written character) is going through her own issues: her brother is joining the militia and her world is falling apart. Despite personal turmoil, she needs to hold the school together and ensure children that everything will be alright despite the constant and disturbing sounds of strikes looming over the school and inching closer to their own classroom.

Mouaness opts for a subtle, indirect narrative context that juxtaposes personal ambitions with political implications. The story of Wissam could be seen as an allegory to an entire nation who has abandoned dreams and hopes amidst shattering and heartbreaking realities. Not only are dreams crushed in such circumstances but Mouaness argues that the situation is even more dire as Lebanon itself saw serious divides between political parties with multiple stances on the ongoing war. As the country’s political forces wrestle over how to deal with invasion, children, as voyeurs and witnesses to an ever-growing tense and bleak atmosphere, attempt to isolate their surroundings and focus on little moments of joy and self actualization. But it’s never easy when war follows them in every corner, making it almost impossible to shake off the fact that the future is all but certain.

As fascinating as this pitch might be, Mouaness doesn’t quite succeed in presenting it coherently. Despite solid efforts in sound design, cinematography and visual effects (yes, there are several incredibly arresting shots that employ visual effects to reflect on children’s innocence at the time of war by blending children’s drawing into the city’s grim-looking landscapes), the film’s narrative falls flat due to two main issues. First, Mouaness pays little attention to creating a sense of tension and urgency – a big miss that such story truly needed to hook audiences. Despite setting the story against a backdrop of war, the film never picks up until its final thirty minutes. The first hour suffers from severely low stakes, as we just follow Wissam as he tries to admit his love to his colleague but fails several times, making the picture feel strangely empty for an entire 65 minutes.

1982’s second flaw is in its casting: Mohamad Dalli (as 11-year-old Wisam) unfortunately lacks charisma and comes off as one-note. This greatly impacts the picture as it takes away from what could have been a magnetic character that makes up for its narrow characterization by engaging audiences through a strong performance. Sadly, Dalli’s low-energy performance makes the film drag further, and the script’s slow pace does not help.

Verdict: Well-intentioned but flat, 1982 suffers from script and pacing issues that prevents it from what could have been a more engaging picture. There’s a good film somewhere in 1982 but it gets lost due to some creative decisions that don’t quite succeed in drawing in the audience.

Grade: B-

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