Sabah Written and directed by Ruba Nadda Starring Arsinée Khanjian, Shawn Doyle, Jeff Seymour Classification: PG Rating ***
That rarest of birds, a good-natured Canadian romantic comedy, Sabah is made unique by the couple involved - she's a shy Muslim from Syria, while he's an affable tradesman from Sudbury.
Set in Toronto, the film instantly wins our sympathy with a surprise cartwheel of an opening scene. Sabah's sisters barge into her kitchen with piercing throat cries, then throw off their hajaabs to reveal party dresses under the traditional scarves. "Our sister is 40!." they whoop. Before long, the argeelah is out and, over the water pipe, the family stories begin.
Sabah (Arsinée Khanjian) has never had a boyfriend, we learn. Still, she's modern thinking, a potential rival to brother Majid, the fierce patriarch who has run the family since the father died. Ironically, it is Majid (Jeff Seymour) who nudges Sabah toward her first affair, breaking with Arab tradition to give his sister a birthday gift - a decades-old photograph of Sabah and her father emerging from the sea, smiling.
Breathing in, Sabah remembers the pleasures of long ago summer days - wind, water, the sun as warm as a hand on her shoulder. Next morning, she visits a public swimming pool. And that's where she meets Stephen (Shawn Doyle). There is a mix-up of towels, a shy exchange of glances and then, over the course of a summer, lunches, progressively more relaxed smiles, a few inevitable missteps, but finally, gloriously, romance.
All of this happens in a classically playful cinematic love story kind of way. And if the story seems a bit clichéd, beyond the novel Syria-Sudbury component, Sabah compensates with generous portions of incidental humour and the attractive playing of its leads.
Much of the former is provided by Sabah's mother (Setta Keshishian) whom we see at one point extolling the virtues of traditional public service - "a good Muslim must always be helping others" - while gnawing on a fried elbow of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
And it's a pleasure to see Khanjian, best known for her carefully measured supporting work with her filmmaker husband Atom Egoyan, allowed to roam free in a leading role. Working with writer-director Ruba Nadda's expressive script, the actress artfully reveals Sabah's nature with a series of finely observed gestures.
Seeing Stephen in the pool for the first time, Sabah can't bring herself to announce her presence with a dive, so slips into the water without creating as much as a ripple. And when she turns to steal a glance at the stranger, we see the words "deep end" on the pool wall, the first sign that our heroine is in over her head.
At the couple's first lunch, Sabah concentrates on her food to keep busy, carefully administering garnish along the length of a French fry while Stephen makes small talk. A comic moment that filmmaker Nadda improves upon by having Stephen pause, fighting a smile, then comment, "So you like ketchup, huh?."
Doyle (The Eleventh Hour) is also very good as Stephen. The part is no more than sketched out - he's a carpenter, divorced, comfortable in his own skin, curious about Sabah's. Nevertheless, Doyle moves through his part with considerable charm and barely any fuss. And his relaxed underplaying forces a more interesting performance out of Khanjian, who seems frantically drawn to the mystery of his placid contentment.
In turn, Sabah offers Stephen new eyes to see the world and a deep reservoir of unspent passion. They're fun to watch and consider on the big screen together. The film is a joy every time Stephen makes Sabah laugh.
Not everything here works. Sabah's inevitable clash with brother Majid over Stephen doesn't yield the powerhouse dramatics that filmmaker Nadda clearly intends. And her sisters' men troubles, though good for an occasional laugh, probably take up more time than they're worth.
Still, satisfying romances are as rare on screen as they are off. Ruba Nadda, Arsinée Khanjian, Shawn Doyle and company have pulled off something special here. Sabah's journey is a trip worth exploring.
Special to The Globe and Mail