Of all the films I was able to catch at the 33rd Cleveland International Film festival in March 2009, “Dunya and Desie” probably had the highest production values, and was also the most polished. Based on a 19-episode Dutch television show from 2002, this 2008 comedy-drama is about two teenage girls living in Amsterdam. Dunya (Maryam Hassouni) is a Muslim who has been raised by a strict family of Moroccan immigrants. Desie (Eva van de Wijdeven) is a free-spirited and liberal Dutch girl. Her own family consists of her well-meaning if trashy mother and a stepfather who is supportive and kind, even if he looks like he just escaped from a penitentiary.

Dunya and Desie are best friends, although Dunya’s family strongly disapprove of Desie’s hedonistic Western ways. This basic conflict sets up the film, as Desie’s endless inappropriate intrusions into Dunya’s family life provide impetus for both plot development and laughs, and in roughly equal measures.

The poodle-haired Desie cracks her gum just as she cracks wise, and she doesn’t seem to own anything that isn’t lavender or Barbie-pink. Her extroverted personality screams for attention; she doesn’t seem to function if someone isn’t looking at her at all times. Dunya, on the other hand, dresses far more conservatively, and is much more soft-spoken when she speaks at all. And yet largely – if not entirely – due to Hassouni‘s subtly magnetic performance, it is Dunya whom I found myself looking at whenever the two women are on screen together. Through all of Desie’s histrionics, it is the subtle wallflower Dunya who is the emotional core of this movie; perhaps the fact that her name is listed first in the title is by design.

As the film opens Desie allows a young driving instructor to have his way with her, and then soon discovers that her poodle has had puppies. Desie is destined to take after her pet in more ways than just her hairdo; the driving instructor has given her a litter of her own. She is pregnant with twins. As Desie decides whether or not to carry the babies to term or to terminate her pregnancy, it suddenly becomes important to her to find her long-lost father. Meanwhile, Dunya is informed that the family is headed back to Morocco, where she’ll immediately be married off. The girls part, but are soon reunited when Desie’s quest takes her to – guess where – Morocco. The two young women run away together, ostensibly in search of Desie’s father. But, when Dunya comments “You’re looking for yourself and I’m fleeing (myself),” it is clear that the trans-Moroccan road trip is about more introspective things for these girls.

Thus we have a road movie with some heart and some humor. A lot of jokes revolve around pink ‘n’ blonde Desie’s failure to integrate into Muslim society; she isn’t even aware that she might need to try. She does show moments of depth, however, when dealing with the issues of her pregnancy. Her indecision about having an abortion weighs heavily on her mind, and the very sensible idea that parenthood isn’t for everyone is handled in an intelligent manner. At the same time, Dunya’s struggles with tradition versus modernity, with pleasing herself versus pleasing her family, dovetail nicely into Desie’s own issues of whether or not to start a family at all.

“Dunya and Desie” doesn’t break any new ground, but it does present the age-old issues of young motherhood, family ties, and the clash between immigrant and native cultures in a palatable context that is optimistic and entertaining.

I can easily see this one being remade – two notches dumber – by Hollywood, although this theoretical remake would have to substitute the white Dutch / Muslim immigrant aspect for something like a far less interesting rich girl / poor girl cliche. It would also have to forfeit the Moroccan landscape, which was sumptuously shot by Bert Pot.

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