Opens Fri., Nov. 22 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 80 minutes.
A very modern problem lies at the heart of Torn. An explosion in a suburban California mall has killed 10 people, including a handful of teens. First reported as a ruptured gas main, the incident is soon revealed to be a bombing. And the stage is set for a 21st-century whodunit that attempts to reveal the destructive nature of a common American prejudice.
The catalyst in Jeremiah Birnbaum’s debut feature is an angry young man, but there’s little effort here to explore his character. Rather, this is a story about the fallout of the terrorist attack—the way it affects two families and their archetypical sons. Until the blast, Lea (Dendrie Taylor) was a single mother, divorced from her devoutly evangelical ex, raising a heavy-metal-loving outsider son. Having also lost their son Walter in the bombing, Pakistani immigrants Maryam and Ali (Mahnoor Baloch and Faran Tahir) are immediately brought under FBI scrutiny after it emerges that Walter attended a controversial mosque.
The situation lends itself to stereotype. “I’ve got a bomb and a Pakistani kid, so I’m sure you can appreciate where I’m going to have to go with this,”says the hard-nosed FBI agent. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that law enforcement isn’t the concern here. Torn isn’t a procedural after all. Instead, Birnbaum focuses on the plight of the two mothers, who become friends as their families are isolated and then torn apart by speculation while the single eyewitness lies in a coma. From there, Torn becomes appropriately complex; no one, including the mothers, knows what to think or whom to blame. It could have ended there, and Birnbaum would have succeeded in making his audience think. Unfortunately it doesn’t; the director, like his film’s accusers, is blinded by the lust for answers.