In Inshallah a Boy, a new film from Jordan, a young mother faces some grueling events. It’s set around the bustling capitol, Amman, a place where temperatures are rarely low. One morning, Nawal (Mouna Hawa) goes to wake her husband but finds him lifeless. She soon learns she is set to inherit their house and his truck, but also four overdue payments for the vehicle. The money is owed to the man’s brother, Rifqi (Haitham Omari), who, benefiting from the country’s Sharia inheritance system, can also claim a slice of Nawal’s home. (Soon the man will believe he should inherit his brother’s daughter, too.) To make matters worse, it transpires that her husband hasn’t been working in weeks and Nawal’s income won’t come close to cutting it. Our hero has two options: sell the truck and pay the debt or convince them all that she’s pregnant with a boy.
If that all sounds like the kind of film that relishes a bit too much in a protagonist’s misfortune, fear not: Nawal isn’t one to take things lying down. When asked what example she hopes to set for her young daughter, Nora (Seleena Rababah), Nawal responds, “At least she won’t be a coward.” What moves Inshallah a Boy away from moral solemnity and closer to suspense cinema is not only the strength of Nawal’s righteous indignation and refusal to budge (risking it all for a truck she doesn’t even know how to drive), but the unmistakable sense she will prevail. Inshallah is the debut of Amjad Al Rasheed, who earlier this year became the first Jordanian director to take a film to Cannes, premiering in Critics’ Week and taking home a prize. That was back in May. Since then, Al Rasheed’s film has traveled the festival circuit from Mumbai to Toronto, the kind of whistle-stop global tour a politically oriented festival title occasionally enjoys when its message is as clear as this and, better yet, when it doesn’t forget to entertain.
Inshallah a Boy played earlier this month in Greece’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival, where it shared that day’s slate with Four Daughters, another feature about a single mother in a Muslim country deciding how best to raise her kids. They create a complementary double bill, though where Kaouther Ben Hania’s documentary-hybrid took a scalpel to the past (and notions of perspective), Al Rasheed’s unfolds like a Rude Goldberg machine. Nawal’s husband’s death sets a number of dominoes tumbling, each quirk of bad luck or misfortune begetting the next. Nawal scrambles to raise the money while both taking care of her daughter and adhering to mourning customs––up to and including not being seen outside after dark. Her husband’s death also emboldens a colleague with a crush to act on it. This causes yet more discomfort at her job, where she nurses for the matriarch of a wealthy family. The family’s most rebellious member, Lauren (Yumna Marwan), represents Nawal’s multiversal opposite: wealthy and undevout, with a living husband she perhaps wishes was dead and an unwelcome pregnancy. Across their social and religious divide, the women find common ground and perhaps the roots of co-conspiracy: in return for providing a positive pregnancy test, Nawal agrees to help Lauren get an abortion.
Al Rasheed thus presents Nawal’s dilemma as Jobian: we’re asked to wonder if her faith will hold firm as her desperation grows. (At one point she goes so far as to download a hookup app but quickly deletes it.) But such is the vibe of Rasheed’s film, Hawa’s performance, and young Rababah, who at one point turns a cheek from her uncle with the delicacy of a sledgehammer: you know the film won’t do her too wrong, and thrills come from seeing how close she will walk to the precipice. This does less to take the sting out of the drama than one might think: the pleasure of watching is not in wondering if she’ll overcome things but how. All of which leads to one of the most satisfying closing shots of the year. Al Rasheed lingers on it as the credits roll, allowing the moment to breathe. It lifts the spirits.
Inshallah a Boy screened at Thessaloniki International Film Festival and will be released in the U.S. on January 12, 2024 by Greenwich Entertainment.