Outside of dudes killing dudes, there's little the moviegoers seem to love more than weddings, a truth that Elite Zexer's heartsick desert drama Sand Storm exploits for a first-act sucker punch. The nuptials that teen Layla (Lamis Ammar) is driving her father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), toward, the frame of a bed jouncing in the back of his Toyota pickup, turn out to be his own — and he's already married to Layla’s mom. Before the ceremony, their Bedouin friends and family assemble that bed frame, to be broken in by Suliman and his new, much younger wife; meanwhile, the older women sit sternly in a private, no-men-allowed ritual with false mustaches, mysterious and Groucho-thick.
Zexer, who wrote and directed, leaves it to you to tease meaning out of that. Layla and her kid sister, who peeps through a window at the newlyweds, seem to take all this as a matter of course, the way things are done. Publicly, their mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal-Asfour), does so, too, but alone with Layla she's cold and furious, trembling with hurt. She gets a chance to vent it at Layla upon discovering that the girl has been consorting with a boy from outside the tribe, a dreamy beauty from her school. Jalila dresses down that kid (Jalal Masrwa) when he calls Layla's cellphone, the device serving as one of several modern indulgences that might give you hope that Layla isn't herself facing a life of arranged marriage within this community. She drives; she goes to school; she can call a boy. But no. Her father has a man in mind for her, and even Layla’s mother, so hurt by her new co-wife, doesn't dare suggest an upending of the rules.
In short, Zexer’s film — scraped of sentiment but still coursing with feeling — is an ethnographic melodrama, rich in cultural specifics but also universal longings. It suggests, in Layla’s minor freedoms, the way those with power allow minor changes while still not yielding on what matters most to them. Zexer, a Jewish Israeli woman, shot Sand Storm with the natural light of the Negev desert, and she sometimes lets the darkness overtake her women, reducing them to silhouette and shadow. In these moments, Layla and Jalila seem fully outside of time: It doesn’t matter what year they’re in or what technology they might have access to. Their lives are not their own.
Early on, there are some minor dramatics over a broken generator. Without electricity, mother and daughter can’t run the dryer, so they pin up the clothes on lines stretched out on a patio in front of the house. Layla’s school boyfriend turns up, eager to talk to her father about a marriage that everyone but him knows will never happen. As Jalila tries to chase him off — with some sympathy now that she sees the two are in love — Suliman arrives in that Toyota of his, with a truck bed packed with new furniture for his new wife. He wants to pull up to the house, and the damp clothes are all in the way.
“I can’t take it down now,” Jalila says.
“What, you want me to do it?” he asks.
In that moment, and throughout the film, Ruba Blal-Asfour’s face goes hard as her eyes go soft. Daughter Layla is the film’s entryway into this life, but mother Jalila is its tragic heart. She’s trapped between tradition and freedom, too, but unlike Layla she knows it.