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Review: The feminist fairy tale ‘Scales’ mirrors the plight of oppressed women

A girl walks along a shoreline with a boat in the background in the movie "Scales."
Basima Hajjar in the movie “Scales.”
(Variance Films)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

While “Scales” lures the audience in with a siren’s song about mermaids, this film is no anodyne Disney adaptation. Instead, this darkly feminist fable has more in common with the violence and cruelty of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.” In her feature debut, Saudi Arabian filmmaker Shahad Ameen has crafted a gorgeously shot, grim fairy tale with little dialogue but much to say about the plight of women in her country and around the world.

On a remote island, ritual dictates that each family must sacrifice a daughter to the sea, but new father Muthanah (Yaqoub Alfarhan) cannot abandon his baby girl, Hayat, to the waters. As Hayat (Basima Hajjar) grows older, she and her family are blamed for the scarcity plaguing their village, but 12-year-old Hayat yearns to find another way to exist outside of the traditions that devour the lives of girls and women on the island.

More poetry than prose, “Scales” refrains from building out this world and its associated rules, and some narrative elements remain murky with questions left unanswered. Instead, “Scales” devotes itself to its mood and message. The stark black-and-white cinematography from João Ribeiro showcases the beauty of the shimmering sea and the glittering sand, as well as capturing both the horror and determination on actress Hajjar’s face.

“Scales” emphasizes the perils of existing as a woman in a world where men are prioritized and the lack of regard for females beyond the value of their bodies. Often eerie (when it’s not outright disturbing), Ameen’s debut is like a nightmare that lingers; the details are hazy, but you’re still left feeling unsettled by what you’ve just experienced and its real-world parallels.

‘Scales’

In Arabic with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Playing: Starts July 9, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles

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