In Five Easy Pieces, a working-class dropout (Jack Nicholson) revisits his ailing father. He’s more than a little detached, having grown to resent the culture that shaped him, and whether due to loneliness or insecurities, he’s become a cipher with no real sense of future. He’s defined by his relationships — some are soft, some forgiving, some astute, some unsure — and they all exist firmly within Middle America. Without that sense of identity, he might have floated away for good.
But while Bob Rafelson’s classic encapsulates a certain corner of western hegemony, Jihane Chouaib’s Go Home adapts the formula with a personal film that, for all its cultural specificity, runs on the ways we remember our pasts. It follows Nada (Golshifteh Farahani, Paterson), a Lebanese woman who returns to her childhood town in order to cope with the mysterious loss of her father. But she doesn’t find a large family when she gets there, or a flood of warm memories, or a chest of childhood belongings. If anything, she has to fill in the blanks with subjective recollections of her youth — and who her father was — in order to see herself as more than an alien in her own home.
Part of this confusion comes from not having much to say; part of it comes from deciding not to say it. Chouaib’s film doesn’t have much dialogue for a while, avoiding conversations in lieu of tepid gazes and coy ambiences. When Nada finally does speak, it’s like she’s trying to find her balance: a little French, a little Arabic, a little English, a little nothing. It’s a juggling game, and it’s one where most is left unsaid.
At least, that’s the case for a while. Chouaib has a real fascination with the gendered and cultural minutiae we assign phrases and expressions, and it’s these moments that give the film most of its life. Characters dole out playful insults and thinly veiled hostilities with equal aplomb but seem resistant to their impacts. Some scenes feel tinged in magical realism in how the camera glares through glass with a kind of kaleidoscopic staging. Chouaib and cinematographer Tommaso Fiorilli (The Insult) also skate between parchment-coated colors, soft focus and shots of deep focus to give an unreliability to Nada. It’s a shame, then, that Chouaib’s writing doesn’t have the structural integrity to match its ambition.
Go Home is quite a modest film in its wider intentions and cultural implications, and that often works to its advantage from a technical perspective. The movie never looks particularly great — its color palette can be quite dull — but it conveys its messages well. But its script doesn’t, as it’s unsure of just how detached or intimately it wants to guide audiences. Sometimes, characters have their foibles; sometimes, they’re downright impenetrable. Sequences of Nada’s arc are languid; some parts feel breakneck-fast in comparison. The first 45 minutes work quite decently, and it’s disquieting for the second half to speed through its most pivotal beats, leaving its softer, more attentive moments in the dust.
It draws a rift between the film’s core and what its core could have better implicated. Chouaib sprinkles in seeds of national guilt, familial resentment and cultural hegemony, and while they all feel authentic from an empathic perspective, they don’t intersect enough to give the insight they could have. Go Home is clearly a personal film. It’s clearly an ambitious one at times, too. But it’s also a scattered one, one that could have felt like more than the sum of its parts.
Matt Cipolla (@cipollamatt) is a film critic and essayist for hire who has worked with the FilmMonthly.com, WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Crooked Marquee and more. He has also co-recorded a historical commentary track for Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam, due to be released by Kino Lorber Studio Classics in 2019.