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Review: Dreaming big in ‘The Idol’ with little hope

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“The Idol” could have been your standard “Rocky”-style inspirational flick, and there’s still much of that in its final third.

But director-writer Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now,” “Omar”) is going for something more, a look at the isolation, desolation and enduring frustration of life in Gaza. The film’s first 30 minutes are a sharp contrast between the exhilaration and optimism of youth and a world of concrete rubble and miles-long fences, of spirits imprisoned and yet free.

Those spirits mostly belong to brother and sister Mohammad (Qais Atallah) and Nour (Hiba Atallah, a force of nature). With Nour as tomboy cheerleader they run — literally, with a “Point Break”-worthy chase scene — through the streets, hatching various schemes to make money. The goal? To earn enough to buy instruments and put together a band with Mohammad as the singer.

Which they eventually accomplish, after some severe setbacks. But nothing can rain on Nour’s parade, and eventually these unlikely kid musicians are performing at weddings.

Then tragedy strikes. Eventually, we revisit the grown Mohammad (Tawfeek Barhom) as a bitter young adult, still dreaming of being a singer. The best way for him to ascend to stardom? “Arab Idol,” a show modeled on the now (thankfully) deceased American entertainment competition. The problem? “Arab Idol” tryouts are held in Egypt; Mohammad is essentially imprisoned in Gaza.

Obviously anyone can see where this going, but director Abu-Assad wisely makes the journey fascinating by factoring in cultural and political considerations. Apparently based on a true story with some fictional elements woven in, “The Idol” doesn’t skirt sentiment — bring a tissue or two — but it makes the journey to that sentiment revealing and worthy.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic

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‘The Idol’

GRADE: B+

Not rated

Running time: 100 minutes

At the Detroit Film Theatre