A Boy Named David
by Symi Rom-Rymer
David, the recently released feature film directed by Joel Fendelman and written by Fendelman and Patrick Daly, sets out to tell one story, but ends up telling two. The first is about the accidental meeting of two boys, Daud and Yoav, one Muslim, and one Jewish, from the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn who manage to break out of their religious bubbles and form an unlikely friendship. The second is the story of the accidental meeting of the same two boys, one the son of immigrant parents and the other of American parents.
In the first story, religion plays a complex role: at once uniting and dividing the protagonists. Initially, it is the reason Daud and Yoav meet. Eleven year-old Yoav forgets his prayer book on a park bench after studying with his friends. Watching from afar, Daud, a somber and often lonely child, is curious about the boy who seems as intent on his religious studies as he is on his. Noticing the forgotten book, Daud tries to return it. Unfortunately, Yoav is too far away to hear him. Daud follows him to his yeshiva only to find the door locked. When he returns the following day, he is mistaken for a lost pupil and shepherded into a class.
Now calling himself David, he suddenly finds friendships in the yeshiva classroom that had previously eluded him. Soon, his life is full of basketball and splashing in the waves at Coney Island. As euphoric as he is with his new friendship, Daud is still insecure, driving a wedge into the boys’ otherwise genuine friendship. Daud is fearful to admit the truth about his religion. He remembers his father’s admonition that “Jews don’t like Arabs” and does not believe that his new friends would accept him if they knew who he really was.
That fear is present throughout the film. Indeed, one could come away from the film thinking of Muslims as dour and Jews as joyful. The main Muslim characters seem to have little happiness with their lives, grappling as they are with seemingly insurmountable obstacles: traditional parents, feelings of exile and heavy spiritual responsibilities (Daud’s father is the Imam for their community). Daud’s interactions with his parents are serious and reserved. By contrast, the Jewish characters seem to be the picture of confidence. Yoav jokes easily with his family and friends and laughingly drags Daud on various adventures around New York City.
What saves the film from falling into simplistic clichés is that there is a larger context for these behaviors. The boys are not only of different religious backgrounds, but also have vastly different connections to the United States. Daud’s immigrant fammily and the serious atmosphere of his home life underscores the struggles newcomers to America often face. How will religious and other traditions be passed on from one generation to the next in a country that prides itself on its plurality? Will family ties be broken if one member leaves home to go to college? What is the best way to keep a family together in the face of an unfamiliar culture?
Yoav and his parents, on the other hand, appear to face few, if any, of these existential concerns. Instead, they exude instead a more light-hearted demeanor that suggests a sense of security and well-being in the United States.
According to the filmmakers, they set out to tell the story of what happens when two boys from Muslim and Jewish backgrounds become friends in the absence of political and historical baggage—building from the premise that the power of basketball is stronger than that of religious stereotypes. Yet as they show it, while a love of sports and a case of mistaken identity may mask the boys’ overt differences, they cannot escape their backgrounds. Daud’s struggles with internal doubt over who he is casts a pall over his growing friendship with Yoav, who cannot understand his friend’s personal turmoil.
The filmmakers may have missed the target of their original conceit, but they have succeeded in presenting a heartfelt coming-of-age story about a young boy searching for what it means to live in the United States as the child of immigrants and as a Muslim. Hopefully one day, he will figure it out.