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Torn, a movie set in the East Bay, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday
, a movie set in the East Bay, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday

What kind of person would detonate a bomb in the middle of a busy suburban mall – a Muslim teenager seeking revenge for the mistreatment of his father at the hands of the American government, or a non-Muslim teenager making good on a schoolyard threat? That’s the question posed by Torn, a locally produced drama opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, October 25.

Directed by Jeremiah Birnbaum and written by Michael Richter, Torn takes place in an inconspicuous and unnamed East Bay burg. Judging from a glimpsed Argus newspaper headline it’s probably Fremont, but wherever it may be, Anytown USA is home to Ali (Iron Man’s Faran Tarir) and Maryam Munsif (Mahnoor Baloch), Pakistani immigrants living the middle-class American dream with their high-school age son Walter.

Despite appearances, however, it hasn’t always been Chevy Suburbans and Applebees for the Munsifs. Now the owner of a popular local eatery, Ali was once fingered as a 9/11 suspect and given the third degree by overzealous federal agents. Eventually cleared of involvement in the plot, he nonetheless and understandably resents and fears the authorities.

It’s no surprise, then, that when a weapon of mall destruction kills ten at the local shopping center’s food court suspicion falls upon Walter. Young, Muslim, ethnically Pakistani, and presumably angry about his old man’s abuse at the hands of Uncle Sam, he’s a handy (and now deceased) suspect for heartless FBI agent Reese (Sharon Washington) and avuncular local police inspector Kalkowitz (veteran character actor John Heard).

Their thesis is thrown into question, however, when evidence emerges implicating fellow bomb victim Eddie Pelletier in the crime. The son of working-class single mom Lea (Dendrie Taylor, soon to be seen opposite Tom Hanks in Saving Mr. Banks), Eddie has been overheard promising to kill some of the bullies tormenting him down at good ol’ Anytown High. Could the all-American white kid with the chip on his shoulder really be a terrorist?

Despite a game effort by its cast (especially the quietly grim Taylor, who delivers the film’s finest performance), Torn is little better than an above average made for TV movie-of-the-week. Richter’s predictable screenplay is laden with comfy bromides and clichés, including the hoary stereotype that there’s a shadowy fifth column working to ‘radicalize’ impressionable youth in every mosque. The film would have been braver if its main characters spoke less English and were less well integrated into American society, and ends on a sour note thanks to a ridiculous final scene reveal.

Though its heart is clearly in the right place, Torn fumbles its attempt to tell a believable story about American Muslim life. In common with earlier features such as Mooz-Lum and The Taqwacores, it tends to tiptoe politely around political issues while offering little more than an Intro level depiction of Islam for non-Muslim audiences. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I’m ready for something a little more challenging.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...