Review: Scales

Written and directed by Shaha Ameen, the story of a strong-willed young girl, Hayat, whose poor fishing village is governed by a dark tradition: every family must give one daughter to the mermaid-like sea creatures who inhabit the waters, to ensure the village can continue their fishing expeditions. Starring: Basima Hajjar, Yagoub Alfarhan, Abdulaziz Shtian, Ibrahim Al-Hasawi, Rida Ismail and Ali Abdallah Al Kamzari.

Scales is the type of film that doesn’t readily fit into any genre, one that you’re not immediately going to decipher or know how you feel about it, you just have to give it a chance to unfold. One of the interesting things about its style is that it doesn’t try to stylise or accentuate the involvement of mermaids in its story. It plays in such a way where it feels natural despite being entirely strange. The tone is a difficult one to put into words, it’s not quite mysterious or ominous but it’s also not heightened drama or thrill, it’s in a place of being offbeat yet grave and an oddity. The story is a surprisingly slow burn, especially for a film that’s only 74-minutes long, it may struggle to hold its entire audience right to the very end. It asks a lot of questions, which it never entirely looks to answer, rather letting you think things out and use your own imagination.

Ameen’s directorial style has a largeness and openness to it, it constantly feels like it’s trying to take in the wider perspective, even while strongly focused on Hayat (Hajjar). The choice to use black and white feeds directly into that aspect of keeping things natural, allowing the drama and moral dilemma to flow without distraction. Its movement and pace are pensive, it’s constantly giving space, both in its timing and aesthetic, to let the audience consider all its implications.

A lot of the weight unsurprisingly lands on the shoulders of Basima Hajjar as Hayat, especially as it’s a role that uses dialogue sparingly. There’s a varying success with the role, she’s not entirely convincing throughout the entire film, there are a few lingering shots where it feels as though she isn’t quite hitting as emotional of a note as required. It’s a shame more of that weight wasn’t put onto the role of her father (Alfarhan), he had a substantial part to play in this story but it’s one that sadly, disappears over time despite his early performance showing he had a lot to add. The rest of the cast all serve to further Hayat’s story, there’s such a strong focus on her, it doesn’t give you too long to really think about the other characters, other than in how they relate to Hayat.

Scales has some rather heavy questions to ask but rather than leading you to answers, leaves it for you to mull over, which will likely not work perfectly for everyone but it’s a bold choice. Ameen’s directorial style and the visual as a whole are very strong, serving the story but with more to add. It does move rather slowly and its events as such are few and far between but it’s not really a film to be put in category or solely about the destination, it’s more about the experience. For such a young actress, this role was asking a lot of Hajjar and while she does hold her own, when the camera doesn’t leave her, the cracks begin to appear. It’s probably going to be divisive but it’s also unique.

Verdict: ✯✯ ½

In theaters across New York and Los Angeles now, with more showings to follow

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