By Jeff Beresford-Howe | February 3, 2008

This is a Lebanese slice-of-life-in-a-Beirut-beauty-shop movie starring and directed by the stunningly beautiful and charismatic Nadine Labaki, who is going to be a major international star one of these days. Everything about these characters, the city and their circumstances manages to be authentic even though the whole movie looks like it was shot at some superheated version of Magic Hour.

In true chick flick fashion, the plot comes and goes. The real point is the dilemmas faced by each of the women: one is a closeted lesbian, struggling with her feelings in a society that disapproves, to say the least; one is getting married, but has to deal with her fiancé’s expectation that she’s a virgin (needless to say, she’s not); one is 65 and being romanced by a preternaturally suave man of a certain age, but has to balance the potential romance with taking care of her crazy mother; and one is coming to terms with her own aging process.

Some of this works out for the characters; some of it doesn’t. Joanna Moukarzel is unusually subtle and thoughtful as Rima, who is obviously attracted to women, and who has a wedding scene so utterly different from anything you’d see in a western movie that it comes as a revelation. Sihame Haddad breaks your heart as Rose, juggling perhaps her last shot at romance.

But while the fates of the characters waver, two things don’t: the writing stays honest throughout, and Labaki steals every scene she’s in. Hey, she’s the director, too, so of course she does, you’re thinking. Like Woody Allen, right? The camera never leaves him, either, because he’s in charge of the camera. No. Labaki is generous with time for the other actors, and actually gives away most of the meatiest dramatic scenes. She simply has that special, indefinable thing that only a few actors in any particular generation have.

“Caramel” will likely be the Lebanese selection for Academy Award for “Best Foreign Film;” it’s inconceivable to me that it won’t win, but it’ll still be an injustice if it does. “Caramel” deserves to be in the categories with the big boys, so to speak, and whoever wins for Best Actress will be the second most deserving actress of 2007.

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