Wednesday June 10, 2015
Movie Review: Excuse My French (2014)
They say comedies don’t travel, and “Excuse My French,” a controversial, coming-of-age comedy that did well at the Egyptian box office last year, is an example of how this is true. And how it isn’t.
It’s true because a lot of the jokes don’t translate (Ex: the “No Offense” nickname), or western audiences won’t find them funny (ogling the hot teacher, Miss Nelly, along with her subsequent offscreen molestation).
It isn’t true because Hani’s situation is universal. I related anyway.
In 1975, the year after my parents divorced, I graduated from the safe confines of Burroughs Elementary School and was bussed across town to Bryant Junior High, where I got picked on mostly because I was 1) smart, 2) small, and 3) white.
Hani Adel (Abdallah Peter, who has a Fred Savage thing going on) switches schools because his father dies suddenly and his mother can no longer afford private school. So he attends a public middle school for boys, where he is picked on mostly because he is 1) smart, 2) small, and 3) Christian.
Actually scratch that third one. It doesn’t come into play until the third act. Besides, as boys around the world know, the first two are bad enough.
The wolf and the sheep
The film has a mild Wes Anderson vibe to it: a lot of head-on shots for comic effect; a lot of small figures at the center of the frame.
Hani’s school has a mild anarchic vibe to it. As his mom drops him off, the first thing he hears—from a passing kid—is how hot his mom is. At assembly, the school bully, Aly, keeps shouting down the adult speakers. He rules from the back of the classroom, while Hani can’t find a seat until he has to settle for front and center with another small kid, Mo’men, who becomes his friend.
(Sidenote: Do the kids stay in the same classroom all day while the teachers rotate? I got that sense. It’s the opposite in the states.)
Every early step for Hani is a misstep. He begins an answer with “No offense, but ...” and gets nicknamed “No Offense.” (I still don’t get it.) He thinks he can win over the kids with wordplay, then with science experiments, then by reciting the Koran. He’s elected class president but only because he’s perceived as controllable. (“May God help you,” Mo’men tells him after the election.) In the schoolyard, he’s constantly given the Darwinian lessons of life by a small, moustache-wearing teaching assistant: there are wolves and sheep and he is a sheep. The assistant shows him the room of the damned, which includes a kid who ratted on his classmates to his mom. Hani feels trapped.
But he’s nothing if not determined and resourceful. For a moment, he wins some measure of popularity with futbol and rapping prowess. But after Miss Nelly’s molestation, he’s determined to stand up to at least one bully—Ally—and does. For that, he gets beaten up, and for that his mom drags him back to school to accuse and complain. Since she’s wearing a cross, his cover is blown; and since his mom ratted, he winds up in the room of the damned. Even Mo’men abandons him.
But even here he’s determined. His mom wants to immigrate to Canada but he refuses. He gives up tennis for judo, then, during Ramadan, takes a Nutella sandwich to school to provoke classmates who are fasting. It works. He and Aly get into a fight, he gets his ass kicked, but the other kids seem turned off by Aly’s triumphalism. For a moment I thought the movie was going to go “Cool Hand Luke” on us in a way that didn’t sense here. (Hadn’t Aly always been a chest-beating doofus? Why turn away from him now?) But that’s not the way it goes. Hani stands up again, throws dirt in Aly’s eyes, and pummels him. The kids cheer. They put Hani on their shoulders and a half dozen surround the defeated Aly and kick him. Both boys are punished by standing in the schoolyard and holding their hands in the air for an extended period. “Part of Hani was happy for being punished,” the narrator tells us. Those are the last words we hear.
If all of this seems odd and vaguely brutal, well, it is. I liked that part of it.
Spotting one a mile away
“Excuse My French” is based upon the middle-school experiences of writer-director Amr Salama—who also wrote and directed the award-winning “Asmaa,” about an Egyptian woman suffering from AIDS—and the appeal to me isn’t in what’s familiar but what’s not; in what feels particularly foreign.
It’s basically a feel-good comedy but there’s not a lot to feel good about. Yes, Hani triumphs. But not before one teacher is molested, another has his face slashed, and all joy is drained from Hani’s initially exuberant face. By the end, he’s constantly on guard, his face screwed up into a wary scowl. There’s something that feels true about that. The joys you have to give up in order to simply survive. Salama doesn’t sugarcoat it the way Hollywood would.
He also doesn’t sugarcoat the Muslim/Christian dynamic. “I can spot one a mile away,” Mo’men says of Christians, not knowing he’s saying it to one who’s a foot away. Even better is how Hani is treated once his cover is blown: as a nonentity by most, and with condescending kindness by the administration. How great is that? Somewhere, we’re all victims of both discrimination and its flip side—political correctness. Another universal.
If anyone from Egypt has seen the movie, I would love to hear your thoughts. And your translations of the jokes I missed. Also, why is it called “Excuse My French”?