Travis Fine’s The Space Between wants to be a great movie; it’s clearly aching to be one. It wants it so bad, you want it too. But it’s not a great movie. It takes a very good idea—a ground-level view of 9/11, as seen by a jaded stewardess and the Muslim “unaccompanied minor” in her charge—and plugs it into yet another “road movie” structure. God, I’m tired of road movies. This is the fourth one I’ve seen at Tribeca, and there’s more (there’s even one called Road, Movie). Attention indie filmmakers: get some new ideas.
Which is not to say that there aren’t things in it that work—it does, after all, star Melissa Leo, who couldn’t play a false note if her life depended on it. As Montine, a cranky, short-fused flight attendant on a New York-to-Los Angeles route that gets grounded on 9/11, she’s spot on; she has an inverted indifference and barely-concealed sadness that reads without overpowering the characterization. She’s already on thin ice for snapping at travelers and various other infractions when she is assigned to watch over Omar (Anthony Keyvan), a ten-year-old Pakistani-American who is flying cross-country to attend an esteemed Muslim school. He doesn’t want to go, and locks himself in the lavatory. He falls asleep in there; when he wakes up, the plane is empty (it’s a wonderfully dreamlike sequence) and Montine takes him into the terminal, where he pushes through a crowd of people gathered around a television and sees the smoking towers. (It would be a masterful reveal if it weren’t, somehow, a shot-for-shot match for the same scene in Dear John.) He has to go home, to his father, but getting him there is tricky, and there’s your road movie.
Fine’s direction is controlled and sensitive—perhaps too much so, as in the early scene where Omar’s father and schoolmaster discuss his future in high-minded platitudes; Fine all but gives them an angelic glow. The inclination towards a positive view of Muslims is admirable, of course, but the Muslim characters in The Space Between have no dimension—they’re all saints, and saints are boring. Montine is flawed, and she’s interesting. (This is not to disparage Keyvan’s performance—the kid is terrific, unaffected and well-matched to his more experienced co-star.) Leo lets us see the pain in her face, the hurt in her eyes; it’s a terrific performance.
But they make the duo do all the expected, worn-out road-movie stuff—we get the views of rolling landscapes, the transportation troubles, the blow-ups, the colorful characters. It’s a chore to get through all that stuff, and when Montine’s big secret is finally revealed, the story symmetry is too damned neat. Some of the supporting characters along the way are good (Brad William Henke from Choke is earthy, gregarious, and real as Montine’s brother), but we wish Fine’s screenplay wasn’t marching them through such a worn-out formula.
There is one thing that The Space Between does especially well: it remembers, vividly, what those days right after 9/11 felt like. There’s a quietness to the film, a delicateness, particularly towards the end, when years of Montine’s grief finally boil over. That’s a good sequence, as is the final scene, during which I did begin to well up. But Fine inexplicably hurries through the effective, emotional ending; it’s shot as though they were trying to get the camera back to the rental shop, fading to black just as it’s starting to get to us. That’s a shame; in those last scenes, you start to see what Fine was going for, and where he wanted to arrive. If he’d have found a more interesting way to get where he was going, then he might’ve really had something here."The Space Between" screens Friday, April 30th at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.