Movie Review: "Just like a Woman"
Rating: R (language, a scene of sexuality)
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: July 5, 2013
Directed by: Rachid Bouchareb
Rating: 3 out of 5
"Just Like a Woman" is the story of Egyptian immigrant Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), who has come to the United States as part of an arranged marriage. She now resides in Chicago, works in her husband's convenience store, and fights off frequent attacks from her mother-in-law (Chafia Boudraa), who is angry that Mona hasn't produced a grandchild for her. The opening scene has poor Mona unwillingly participating in an ancient fertility ritual in the hopes that she will become pregnant. If she doesn't, her husband will find another wife who is fertile, leaving Mona disgraced and out in the lurch.
The hours she works in the convenience store are the small respite she gets from her life. There, she meets a regular customer named Marilyn (Sienna Miller), who has just been laid off from her secretarial job. The two women strike up an unlikely friendship over their bad marriages and mutual love of belly dancing. One day, Mona, who has just been yelled at yet again by her mother-in-law, accidentally gives the old crone the wrong medications, killing her. Worried that she will be deported or imprisoned, Mona decides to run for it, right at the same time that Marilyn is walking out on her husband after finding him in bed with another woman. The two women impulsively decide to escape together.
Marilyn knows of an international belly dancing contest down in New Mexico that she has always dreamed of entering, so that is where they head. It's a long ways from Chicago to Santa Fe, and they encounter many obstacles along the way. They use their belly dancing skills at clubs and restaurants to earn money, but it also earns them the attention of some unsavory and misogynistic types who could derail their road trip. They also meet more than a few people who do not take kindly to Mona because she is from an Arabic-speaking country. Will they make it to New Mexico, or will the occasionally cruel world around them stop them in their tracks?
The movie will almost certainly be compared to another female empowerment film, 1991's "Thelma and Louise" starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. The similarities are obvious, especially once the two women hit the road in their car to escape their lives. The difference is that the women in "Just Like a Woman" have more emotional scars than the ones in "Thelma and Louise." For example, Thelma's husband is controlling, but he is portrayed as a buffoon who deserves the eventual cuckolding he gets. In contrast, Marilyn's husband is mentally abusive and can't keep a job. Mona's husband isn't abusive, but his overbearing mother abuses poor Mona enough for the both of them. "Thelma and Louise" only scratched the surface of the women's romantic lives, and Louise actually has a very decent boyfriend who tries to help her out by funding her outlaw road trip. The empowerment and road trip angles may be the same in the two films, but everything else is very different.
Miller turns in what is arguably the best performance of her career here, including the delivery of a flawless Midwestern accent despite the fact that she is a native of England. She also downplays her obvious beauty, making Marilyn slightly frumpy and slouchy at times. She gives a performance that strips away all traces of vanity, which is a rarity in the movie industry. Equal to the task is Farahani, who displays years of yearning in her eyes as Mona, the put-upon trophy wife whose only value to her family is as an incubator for a baby that she can't seem to have.
"Just Like a Woman" could have easily become overly preachy because of the subject matter. Though the script by Joelle Touma and Marion Doussot does delve into some fairly weighty issues, it never gets mired down in those issues. An overall feeling of hope surrounds the film, even in the occasional grim scene. Director Rachid Bouchareb has said that the film is part of a planned trilogy about how the United States' relationship with the Arab world and people has changed over the last several years. The overall hopeful tone is perhaps a sign that Bouchareb is hopeful that positive change will continue, because a viewing of "Just Like a Woman" shows just how far these cultural relations have come but also just how far they still have to go. Either way, it is an interesting and entertaining start to what is sure to be a heavy-hitting trilogy once the next two films are released.