Review: “Huda’s Salon”

There’s something about going to a hair salon that many people find comforting. That feeling doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what hairstyle you’re going to try on a given day, but moreso with the sense of community that comes with regularly going to a place, seeing the same people, and being able to gossip with and confide in the person you’re trusting with your personal appearance. That light and breezy back and forth is evident in the opening scene of “Huda’s Salon,” in which Reem (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a young mother, goes to see Huda (Manal Awad) at her salon in Bethlehem for a simple haircut. But their easy and seemingly normal conversation about life and marriage and what sort of haircut Reem wants is cut suddenly short when Huda betrays her trust. Huda, having gleaned from their talk that Reem’s husband Yousef (Jalal Masarwa) is controlling and easily made jealous, places Reem in a compromising situation so she can then blackmail her into working for the secret service of Israeli occupiers. It’s a strong opening sequence from Palestinian writer, director, and producer Hany Abu-Assad, one that, like much of the movie to follow, makes use of long takes that immediately draw the viewer into the story, the tension and intrigue ever-increasing as the camera follows Huda around while she puts her scheme into action. Unfortunately, this sequence is the most effective part of “Huda’s Salon,” a feminist-centered political thriller that, despite its brisk 90 minute runtime, isn’t particularly political or thrilling.

Maisa Abd Elhadi as Reem in “Huda’s Salon”

Reem and Huda don’t meet again after this opening scene, but the remainder of the film splits its time between the conflicts each of them is facing. Reem rushes home, clutching her infant daughter, and is noticeably anxious about what she should do next. If she agrees to work for the secret service, feeding them information, she will be branded a traitor. If the photos that Huda took of her get out, she and her family will be publicly shamed. Elhadi pulls all of Reem’s fear and strength out of herself and puts it into her performance, even when it feels like most of the time the camera is just following her frantically bustling about her tight apartment. Huda, meanwhile, is captured, brought to a dank underground bunker, and interrogated by Hasan (Ali Suliman), a member of the Palestinian resistance. Their conversations bring to light the reasons why Huda did what she did, and suddenly, our feelings about the woman who seemed like she surely must not be a good person based on her actions toward Reem in the opening scene are made much more complicated. As Huda, Awad is a pillar of strength and defiance; Hasan may be the person interrogating Huda, but she is the one in control.

Neither Israel nor Palestine are explicitly mentioned in the film, however. We can infer what the political climate is from context clues, but in trying to make Huda and Reem’s conflict feel less tied to a specific point in history, the film ultimately feels rather adrift. “Huda’s Salon” doesn’t need to make a grand political statement; Abu-Assad is more concerned with what makes the characters tick when they are betrayed and placed in circumstances that challenge their livelihoods, particularly in a society where women are forced to exist under, not equal to, men. But the conflict does end up lacking gravitas and feeling rather hollow the more the film progresses, moving from Huda to Reem and back again but not really moving forward.

Manal Awad as Huda in “Huda’s Salon”

“Huda’s Salon” boasts strong performances and character moments, such as a piece of conversation that Hasan has with Huda, when he reveals a betrayal he partook in as a child that resulted in the death of his best friend. Masarwa’s performance as Yousef is also rich; he seems, on the surface, like a nice guy genuinely concerned when his wife starts acting strangely, but his strict nature quickly bubbles to the surface. The film attempts to compare and contrast Huda and Reem—an older woman who has ended up where she is thanks to the hard choices she had to make, and a young woman who could easily be headed for a similar situation—in intriguing ways, but by the time it reaches its conclusion, it feels more like the prelude to a bigger narrative than a complete story.

“Huda’s Salon” will be released in theaters and be available to watch on demand on all digital platforms on March 4. Runtime: 91 minutes Rated R.

Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.

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