Jumping aboard Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise train of film-making, featuring lots of walking and talking romance and breezy aesthetics with an edge, Naz & Maalik is a confident first full length feature film from director Jay Dockendorf. The success of the picture ebbs here and there due to a distracting FBI side plot and a third act that brings the film to an alarming, screeching halt, but overall offers up a bite sized look at two young men and their burgeoning romance, all over the course of a day.
Naz (Kerwin Johnson Jr.) and Maalik (Curtis Cook Jr.) are two closeted Muslim teens who live in New York City. Their skittish behavior regarding hiding their sexuality leads them to being unjustly tracked by an FBI agent while they hawk goods in Brooklyn.
The films downfall comes in the face of wanting to be too many things at once, a juggling act that it loses pretty quickly. The genre that feels the most comfortable for the film is romance, which weaves itself through the film between Naz and Maalik’s sweet interactions and in their heated and bountiful arguments over petty matters and the like. It’s when the film tries to make its message that it loses its momentum. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a want for a film that addresses profiling and the stigma that goes along for a Muslim youth who is gay, but it needs to be done in a film that is able to readily dedicate its full attention to that storyline. Everything with the FBI agent didn’t work because it felt as if it were being transplanted in from another film entirely, coming off as half baked ideas that seem better in theory than in actual execution. While it’s thrilling to see a film address the issues it would also be nice to see them addressed in a manner where it didn’t come off like an after thought. This plus the ending which rushes into its conclusion with little to no clarity, forcing a metaphorical ideology onto the viewers in the last possible moment are the two biggest faults with the film, and they’re big enough to almost forget the stronger moments the film offers.
Luckily for the film, they don’t just have Cook and Johnson’s naturalistic performances, but they also one that for two thirds of the time is operating as a hidden romance between two teens, between two young men who are devout, gay, playful and petty. They are a mess of emotions and have hot-headed temperaments which only prove to make both their quarrels and happier moments all the more intriguing to watch. It tempts viewers into wondering what would have become of these two young men had they not been so hindered by their families expectations. Spending only a few mere hours with the characters is enough to understand the intimacy of their relationship as well as their boundaries, acting as mere buddies when on their families doorsteps and shuffling into abandoned alleyways to kiss passionately. It’s a relationship that would have benefited from more time being dedicated to the two of them and their natural chemistry, rather than the comings and goings of action around them.
Dockendorf shoots New York as it ought to be, without the romanticism or added flourishes that too many filmmakers fall victim to and instead with a realistic brush, showcasing the little seen parts of New York, mainly, the traveling from one point to another, all of which is shot with vibrancy. Dockendorf’s film excels when it’s caught up in the little moments, rather than in the larger themes. Prejudice is rightly addressed in the film, but it didn’t need to take up an entire subplot that took us away from such engaging leads.
Worth a watch regardless of some near inconsequential pitfalls, Naz & Maalick is far from perfect but it’s silently moving in its romance and delivers a pairing that we don’t often get the chance to see in films.