Film Review: Torn

Sharply observant, non-exploitative study of how modern terrorism affects ordinary lives is intelligent and moving.

A terrorist bomb explodes in a mall in which ten people are killed, followed by a roundup of the usual suspects. Under suspicion are two boys who, although killed in the blast, had behavior which was suspicious enough to single them out as possible perpetrators. The police intensely question their mothers—hard-working single parent Lea (Dendrie Taylor) and Muslim real estate agent Maryam (Mahnoor Baloch), an emigré from Pakistan—who are both mystified and horrified as the dark secret lives of their sons are slowly revealed to them. Eddie (Jordan Parrott), Lea's boy, was a victim of bullying, which made him threaten his tormentors, while Walter (Sagar Parekh) suffered discrimination for being Pakistani and was also, unbeknownst to Maryam, immersing himself in Islamic studies.

From a terse, wonderfully observant and unsentimental screenplay by Michael Richter, director Jeremiah Birnbaum has made a refreshingly low-key, unhysterical account of a modern tragedy and the very specific ways it affects people, long after horrific incidents happen. The lack of melodrama or sensationalism in the presentation really helps you get under the characters' skins, while realizing fully the innate mystery germane to every human being. Torn is the kind of story which could happen anywhere and, terrifyingly, seems to be happening more and more, and the filmmakers' big achievement here is the way they deal with it, never once resorting to the mawkishness or ugly rabble-rousing hype which all too often accompanies this subject. Richter tells the tale with admirable economy—the film runs 80 minutes—as well as an unstressed but devastating emotional authenticity. He could have ended his film with the question of the boys' culpability unanswered and that ambiguity would have been sufficient, but instead he reveals the truth, and the revelation is breathtakingly poignant.

Richter admirably switches the usual tables on the women's economic status: far from being a menial immigrant, Maryam is a successful white-collar professional, while Lea toils as a factory janitor. They both suffer ostracism in the workplace and elsewhere as news of their sons' possible involvement spills. Their different but strangely parallel dramatic arcs are beautifully rendered by the weather-beaten Taylor and the lovely, composed (until she cracks) Baloch, as is their burgeoning, difficult friendship. Faran Tahir has a marvelous dignity and strength as Maryam's husband, who was mistakenly arrested post-9/11; his monologue about preferring a life of "filthy biryani" back in Pakistan to the contempt he endures in this "land of the free" is searing. John Heard lends some crusty authority as a cop, although Sharon Washington is a tad too vehement as an FBI agent bent on cracking the case.