The world is less scary the more we can recognize ourselves in it, and, in Caramel, writer-director Nadine Labaki invites us to gaze into the mirror and savor our pretty reflections. The title refers to the super-sticky concoction of sugar and lemon juice used to thin bushy brows and other areas of interest, employed by the staff of a smallish beauty salon in an unglamorous corner of Beirut. It's a nexus of activity, gossip and sisterly bonding. The setting is exotic but the characters are familiar types — the busybody, the ingenue, the tomboy and the doddering old lady — all of whom would be comfortable pulling up a stool in Queen Latifah's Chicago shop. Of course, some of the dilemmas they face are somewhat different, such as the Muslim girl who has to undergo a bizarre surgical procedure to fool her fiance into thinking she's a virgin. What are for these women everyday nuisances, like being harassed by the police for simply sitting in a car with a man at night, might shock Western audiences who take a liberated society for granted.

Consider the silent struggle of young shampoo girl Rima, who longs for one of her lovely lady customers, but is so deeply closeted it's never an option. A Hollywood comedy would dress such scenes in girl-on-girl action jokes. Still, Beirut is a pretty cosmopolitan place, and the movie is very good at showing the easy interweaving of cultures, not as some grand statement of unity, but as a basic, inescapable fact of day-to-day reality. Labaki has a real feel for atmosphere, and the attractively shot film unfolds with a naturalism that cuts through the otherwise soapy nature of the material. Upping the realism is that most of the actors aren't professionals, yet they give nuanced, instinctive performances without the slightest hint of forcing it. Seasoned pros would likely ham it up, driving the movie into maudlin chick-flick territory. Nobody here ever jumps up on a table and lip-syncs to an Aretha Franklin tune, and that's a blessing — but there's pathos and lots of hugging, even a bit of a wedding dance at the end. Maybe someday soon seeing such common joys from a Middle Eastern film won't be odd at all.

Opens Friday, Feb. 8, at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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