The opening scene of Limbo suggests it will be a Napoleon Dynamite-esque comedy. Two instructors are teaching a room full of adult refugees how to integrate themselves into an unfamiliar culture. They put on a cheesy song – Hot Chocolate's “It Started with a Kiss” to be exact -- and begin carrying out some awkward dance moves. The female instructor really gets into it the more she goes on. So does the male, albeit in a different way. Seemingly turned on, he attempts to kiss his partner, who responds by slapping him across the face as the confused students look on. The movie certainly has its share of quirky-for-the-sake-of-quirkiness comedy, but it evolves that comedy into something more humane.
Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a Syrian musician being housed on an isolated Scottish island while waiting to see if his asylum claim will be approved. The government has put him up in a tiny little place, away from the rest of society. He makes friends with some of the other refugees, most notably an Afghani named Farhad (Vikash Bhai). Omar's primary possession is his grandfather’s oud, which he no longer has the desire to play. His parents, meanwhile, are pressuring him to return home and fight in the civil war like his brother is. A little irony resides in this dilemma. He's looking for a better life, but so far the current situation isn't a whole lot better than what he left behind. Farhad believes his friend could re-find his spark by returning to music, even appointing himself Omar's manager and booking a gig at the local rec center.
Limbo doesn't have a super-complicated plot. Instead, it focuses on showing what life is like in the titular state of being. There are moments of confusion, as when Omar ventures into a local grocery store, only to find it doesn't carry any of his native food. There are also times of levity, like watching Farhad eagerly digesting old episodes of Friends and trying to understand the motivations of Ross and Rachel. And, of course, there is plenty of isolation, as Omar is distanced from his family and made to feel unwelcome in the place where he's ended up.
Writer/director Ben Sharrock takes a unexpected approach by mixing stark realism with point-and-laugh eccentricities. The approach, although occasionally far from seamless, is to have the comedic bits represent the "stranger in a strange land" feeling Omar has. Everything seems foreign and different to him. Leaving a war-torn country and coming to a place where people have far less grave concerns proves utterly perplexing.
Even though the comedy can be hit or miss – and a third-act tragedy feels a tad forced -- the portrait of people stuck on an island together, not knowing whether they'll be admitted to the mainland or shipped back to the places they escaped from, is poignant. Sharrock has great empathy for his characters, taking the time to show the helplessness they feel at the hands of a government that is not theirs, in addition to the loneliness that comes with detaching from families and friends. Limbo earns our emotional investment by showing how they form a community together, with vastly different personalities bonding due to a single shared experience.
Amir El-Masry is another key to the movie's success. His performance as Omar is subtle, suggesting depression through mournful looks and quiet speech. More essentially, he indicates that the character once had a joyous side. Allowing us to sense how circumstances have changed him invests Limbo with genuine stakes. Here's a guy trapped in a hovering pattern. How long he'll be there is unknown, as is his final destination. Sharrock cares deeply about him. Therefore, we do too.
out of four
Limbo is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.