Built from old-fashioned sensibilities that serve as both assets and deficits, Oualid Mouaness’ empathetic “1982” feels as though it could have been made during the titular year in which it’s set.
Mouaness’ time-honored approach is to contrast the sweetness of a first crush with the ageless shock of lost innocence. His hero is 11-year-old Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), a student at a Quaker school in the Lebanese mountains above Beirut. As the day begins, Wissam is determined to express his long-hidden feelings for classmate Joanna (Gia Madi). But he still has several obstacles to overcome, including his own shyness, the disapproval of adults around him, and the fact that Joanna’s best friend Abir (Lelya Harkous) is the class tattletale.
There’s also the fact that his imminent announcement has coincided with the start of the 1982 Israel-Lebanon War. For most of the day, the kids don’t even notice the ominous rumblings outside and overhead. But their teachers are acutely aware of every subtle tremor.
Yasmine (Nadine Labaki) is most worried about her brother, who is eager to fight for his country. In contrast to his passion, she’s fervently hoping for a swift end to any conflict. Her colleague (and secret boyfriend) Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman) is disgusted by her impartial pacifism, leaving her to navigate personal schisms amid the encroaching national disaster. And yet despite their own growing concerns, the adults have to continue running an ordinary school day as long as they possibly can.
Mouaness directs his debut feature with a sensitive hand, even if his script, based on his own experience, could have used a lighter touch. In 1982, there was nothing more romantic than an artist using a young boy’s first love to express innocence while highlighting the barbarism of adult violence. In 2022, some viewers may notice that the preternaturally mature Madi has a stronger screen presence than Dalli, but exists primarily as a construct in Wissam’s (and Mouaness’) mind.
There are a couple of nicely prickly scenes between her and Abir, but for the most part, she is the goal towards which Wissam moves, so that Mouaness can contrast purity inside the schoolhouse with the savagery outside.
But if the children feel like symbols — sweet and touching, but not quite real — the adults provide a profusion of reality. Mouaness lucked out in casting Labaki, a Lebanese director (the Oscar-nominated “Capernaum”) and movie star (“Caramel”) who brings experience and gravitas even as she quietly cedes the spotlight to her younger co-stars. Her understated anxiety makes Yasmine’s growing list of worries for herself, her family and her students all the more nerve-wracking.
Mouaness is equally adept in traversing seamlessly between the children and adults. He and cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard (“The Salton Sea”), whose deliberately unassuming approach also centers the kids, effectively build up a jittery tension throughout the course of this single day.
Wissam remains too slender a character to hold our hearts the way Joanna holds his. But it’s a reflection of Mouaness’ compassionate direction that we’re still caught up in worry about him and his friends — not to mention their courageous guardians — as each passing hour trips both silent and deafening alarms.
“1982” opens in NYC June 10 and LA June 24.