L to R) Amir El-Masry as "Omar", Ola Orebiyi as "Wasef", Kwabena Ansah as "Abedi", and Vikash Bhai as "Farhad" in director Ben Sharrock's LIMBO, a Focus Features release. (Image courtesy of Focus Features)

Omar (Amir El-Masry) is a young Syrian musician who wanders around a scenic Scottish island carrying his oud, the pear-shaped fretless stringed instrument that resembles a guitar. His roommate Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan carries around a pet chicken named after Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. Both are refugees stuck in a strange land while seeking asylum in the very funny dark comedy aptly named “Limbo” from award-winning writer-director Ben Sharrock who’s quickly becoming the international version of Wes Anderson.

Review

LIMBO (2021)
Amir El-Masry, Vikash Bhai, Ola Orebiyi, Kwabena Ansah, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Kais Nashif, Cameron Fulton, Silvie Furneaux, Jorge Gidi
Directed by Ben Sharrock

Sharrock’s 2015 debut “Pikadero” — named after a public place used for sexual encounters — with its vivid characters, beautiful cinematography, poignant storyline, and deadpan humor signified a new unique voice in independent cinema. The Scottish filmmaker’s sophomore feature “Limbo” reinforces Sharrock’s visual style while fine-tuning his ability to use humor to tell a story based around a real-life crisis like Spain’s economy in his debut and the refugee dilemma in his follow up. Not surprising since Sharrock holds degrees in Arabic and Politics from the University of Edinburgh.

“Limbo” begins with a great opening scene as a roomful of refugees watch Cultural Awareness instructors Helga and Boris (wonderful actors Sidse Babett Knudsen and Kenneth Collard) attempt to demonstrate what’s socially acceptable in European society. A small radio plays Hot Chocolate’s “It Started with a Kiss” while Helga busts out awkward dance moves — think animated Barbara Eden in the “I Dream of Jeannie” opening — while Boris stands on the sidelined waiting for his invitation to join in. It comes, he gets touchy-feely, Helga delivers a vicious slap to the face, the music stops, and she turns to ask the class, “What did Boris do wrong?” The group of men made up of different ethnicities looks bewildered as if they were teenagers sitting in a classroom featured in John Hughes’ “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Dreamers are a big part of Sharrock’s repertoire. In “Limbo” there are four of them, roommates sharing a small home while learning English by watch bootleg videos of “Friends.” Omar was a popular musician in Syria before fleeing his country during the civil war onset, his parents have joined the many displaced families in Istanbul, his older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) however stayed behind to fight in the war causing a strain in the siblings’ relationship. During most of the film, Omar walks around carrying his oud in its case like a Middle Eastern Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers seem to have heavily influenced Sharrock.

My favorite character is roomie #2, Farhad from Afghanistan who carries a picture of his idol Freddie Mercury in his wallet. He points out to Omar, that both he and the Queen lead singer have the same mustache, and both are Zoroastrians. Back home Farhad had a pet chicken named Freddie so he steals one from a neighboring farm as a substitute to keep him from getting homesick.

The other two refugee roomies are Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) from Ghana and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) from Nigeria who told immigration officials that they were brothers in the hope of speeding up the asylum process. Wasef dreams of one day playing for the Chelsea football club but Abedi quickly shoots down his hope with a harsh dose of reality. The two usually end up arguing over trivial stuff including episodes of “Friends.” Maybe they are brothers!

“Limbo” is a quirky comedy reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s dry wit and the dramedy plus visual style of the Coen brothers. Nick Cooke captures the beauty of the Outer Hebrides islands just off the coast of Scotland where our story takes place. Many asylum seekers in the UK are moved to Scotland while their application process is being examined. The process usually takes six months but as evident in Sharrock’s film, the wait can be a lot longer. The writer-director was inspired to make the film after working in the Syrian refugee camps where he developed close relationships with the people.

Unlike the Coens, there is no convoluted plot or twist in Sharrock’s comedy. “Limbo” tackles a real crisis giving audiences a perspective from the refugee side while driving home the comedy angle. There are a few melancholy moments as Omar converses with his parents via an isolated phone booth in the middle of nowhere. The conversation usually ends up being a plea from his mother to reach out to brother Nabil.

Shot in a boxy ratio until the film’s finale when Cooke expands the frame to widescreen for another great moment as Omar does what we’ve been waiting for the entire movie, “Limbo” is laugh out loud funny with eccentric characters and memorable performances. Don’t miss one of the funniest films of the year.

(4 stars)

Now playing in select theaters including
Cinemark Alliance Town Center and XD
AMC The Parks at Arlington 18
AMC Dine-in Grapevine Mills 30
Angelika Film Center & Café
AMC NorthPark 15
Cinemark West Plano and XD

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. More by Joe Friar

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