In his critical study “Discourse and the Novel,” Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described narrative fiction as a process by which individual characters are defined by their own semi-private ways of speaking, formed and conditioned by their personal histories, cultural backgrounds, and the possibilities of their time. The novel, then, is a space where these unique “idiolects” intersect and engage with one another, producing a complex tapestry of worldviews in contention. But what happens when those idiolects don’t intersect? In Concrete Valley, the second feature film by Canada’s Antoine Bourges (Fail to Appear), characters don’t so much interact as bang against each other like billiard balls, knocking one another onto skewed trajectories.
At its core, Concrete Valley is an examination of a brief period in the lives of a Toronto family who emigrated from Syria five years prior. Rashid (Hussam Douhna) was a doctor, and although we see him paying drop-in medical visits to residents of his apartment block, it is not clear whether or not he is currently working. His wife Farah (Amani Ibrahim) was a stage actress back home, but is now working as a clerk in a pharmacy. The couple has a young son, Ammar (Abdullah Nadaf), who seems to be having trouble fitting in at school, but is never forthright with his parents about exactly what is going on.
Bourges articulates a number of different layers of alienation that affect this family in their daily lives. While a significant part of their struggle comes from trying to make their way in a new country, they have found their place within an Arab-Canadian community, and are by no means isolated. But a number of interactions are complicated by the fact that they speak imperfect English. Rashid is taking language classes with a friend, Suliman (Suliman Hafed), and a benign class assignment — describing a first date — becomes a point of contention between the two men. Rashid tries to coax Suliman into divulging details, as the exercise requires, but he feels that both Rashid and the assignment are a challenge to his privacy. Later at the family dinner table, Farah recounts an altercation from her workday, when a man (with his own “foreign” accent) accosts Farah for allegedly putting his wife in the hospital by recommending a skin cream to which the woman had an allergic reaction.
Instead of taking Farah’s side, Rashid chastises her for not knowing the ingredients of the cream she sold. This goes to the heart of the primary conflicts that define Concrete Valley. The family’s interactions with the larger world are often complicated by the fact that they are still trying to master the English language and Canadian cultural norms. But the more pressing issue is the simmering resentment between Farah and Rashid. Her job creates scheduling problems, they spend less and less time together, and neither of them is satisfied with their overall situation. Attempts to reach out to the broader community are also awkward and unpredictable. Farah gets involved with a community group led by Saba (Aliya Kanani), only to discover they will be picking up trash around the building; Rashid tries to assist a neighbor, Yanah (Lynn Nantume), who was injured in a car accident, but his professional demeanor slips into somewhat aggressive amorous overtures.
In another context, one could imagine many of the conflicts in Concrete Valley being played for laughs, within the now-common framework of the “comedy of embarrassment.” But Bourges depicts these situational misfires with a modest, declarative form of performance and camerawork that recalls the subtlety of Dan Sallitt (Seventeen, The Unspeakable Act). Even the most emotionally fraught situations are drained of overt drama, presented with the matter-of-fact melancholy one experiences when attempts at personal connection go awry. In the film’s final scene, Rashid reads a story in his English class, one that goes to the heart of his own self-identity — his desire to be a healer and civil role model. When the teacher merely corrects his use of past tense, it’s like the entire film in microcosm. Concrete Valley suggests that the immigrant experience, like all other human experiences, is in large part a misalignment between speaker and listener, intention and reception, form and content.
DIRECTOR: Antoine Bourges; CAST: Hussam Douhna, Amani Ibrahim, Abdullah Nadaf; DISTRIBUTOR: Metrograph; IN THEATERS: February 23; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 30 min.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 5.