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Scorn in the U.S.A.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013)

Ishaan Nair/IFC Films

Mira Nair's latest film, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," is an investigation into Americanness wrapped in the veneer of a brash thriller, and — given recent events in domestic terrorism — eerily timely. Based on Mohsin Hamid's book of the same name, the story focuses on Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young man who is implicated in a high-profile kidnapping in Pakistan. Through conversations with a journalist, Changez retraces the steps that have led him from a sleek financial firm in New York to a radical professorship in Lahore. Jumping between moments of classic suspense and romance, Ms. Nair zeroes in on post-9/11 racism and its potentially radicalizing effects, namely on young men who feel increasingly alienated from the American dream — whatever that may be.

For our maybe-hero, Changez, the dream is New York City — although Ms. Nair's New York is at times glossy and blank, more a symbol than an actual place. Her strength as a director lies in the intricacies of family systems; and Changez's family back in Pakistan is particularly well-drawn. His father is a poet and an intellect who can't quite understand his son's desire to climb the ruthless capitalist ladder. "What do you do, exactly, at Underwood?" he asks his son, who has returned home for a family wedding. "It's Underwood and Samson," says Changez, exasperated. It's a gently funny and poignant moment (annoyance at one's parents knows no ethnic boundaries) that also represents the beginning of Changez's examination into his own notions of success and assimilation.

While familial ties are treated delicately and our forays to Pakistan burst with color and sound, the rest of the story feels less fresh at times. Ms. Nair relies heavily on stilted dialogue ("You're playing a dangerous game") and characters who verge on caricature (Kate Hudson as the faux-bohemian love interest; Kiefer Sutherland as the smooth-talking predatory boss; Liev Schreiber as the burned-out expat journalist). The film could run the risk of feeling play-by-numbers if not for the captivating performance by Mr. Ahmed, who creates nuance where the story needs it most. His Changez is smart, thoughtful and ambitious — qualities that could be useful for leading a board meeting . . . or perhaps a jihad? In theory, we are meant to wonder which will be his destiny, but those plot twists are ultimately less riveting than Changez's reactions to his changing environment. He may be suited and booted but his Ivy League education doesn't protect him from daily microaggressions by his coworkers or the more blatant indignities of airport strip searches and police interrogations. Our protagonist speaks perfect English, rolls his eyes and demands a lawyer; but it's impossible to ignore the fear rumbling beneath the surface. Mr. Ahmed captures the frustration and disappointment of someone caught between worlds: a Pakistan he hoped to escape and an America that is rapidly slipping out of his reach.

Sensual and fast-paced, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is strongest when its shifting between these arenas of old and new, insider and outsider, trust and betrayal. And while immigration, identity and Islam are discussed ad nauseum in op-eds and blog posts, they aren't topics that have found their way into too many genre films. If nothing else, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is a welcome contribution to the national conversation and a well-deserved entry for Mr. Ahmed into the American media consciousness.


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