In the 1980s, what the average North American knew of Somalia he learned from Sally Struthers-hosted feed-the-children commercials. Then came Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down,” which portrayed white actors beset by ululating black guerrillas, and a series of news reports in which Western ships were hijacked by small bands of Somali “pirates.” Each and every one of these depictions simplifies a civilization that, according to writer-director Bryan Buckley’s “Dabka,” needs to be recognized “as the incredibly complex people that they are” — a budding democracy struggling to assert itself among rivals with the power to steal their resources right out from under them.
So, that’s what’s progressive and good about “Dabka.” Unfortunately, best intentions aside, the film itself is a rowdy, often abrasive account of how a lone Canadian journalist had the chutzpah to actually travel to Somalia and investigate a situation that others were to skittish to cover. Somehow, the result manages to be pathetic and punk-rock at the same time, as Buckley leans a bit too heavily on the same joke about how a sad-sack loser, Jay Bahadur (Evan Peters, playing the real-life journalist), came to find himself in such a potentially dangerous hot spot, doing drugs with pirates and flirting with the wife of a local gangster.
“Dabka” wants to be a cross between “Three Kings” (David O. Russell’s Desert-Storm-gone-wild satire) and “Almost Famous” (Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical account of a wild gig he scored for Rolling Stone magazine as a teen), but it never quite charms us into identifying with its goofy, nothing-to-lose hero, who’s desperate to move out from his parents’ basement and jump-start his journalism career. The film’s cocky, too-clever-by-half opening voiceover is designed to underscore how Jay’s wit is being wasted on a mindless job interviewing grocery store managers (“I actually hate movies with main characters as narrators,” he tells us).
After meeting a local journalism hero (played by Al Pacino with his usual scene-stealing gusto) in the doctor’s office waiting room, Jay decides to take the plunge, borrowing just enough money from mom (Melanie Griffith) to get him to Somalia. Using rock music and vivid worst-case-scenario nightmares to amplify Jay’s anxiety en route, “Dabka” hits its stride once the story reaches Africa — where Buckley, best known for his work on dozens of wicked-cool Super Bowl commercials, also shot his Oscar-nominated short “Asad” with Somali refugees.
Many have wondered how Buckley might follow up that coup, and “Dabka” demonstrates an admirable desire to challenge what’s safe and conventional, even as it reveals certain weaknesses as a director. The movie’s much too flashy, allowing its cheeky attitude to overpower the otherwise humanist message (somehow, absurd situations feel less so when the narrator is constantly pointing out how outrageous everything seems to be), while the acting is all over the place.
It’s not so much that Jay needs to be a more likable character, but a little vulnerability would have gone a long way, and a more experienced actor might have found a more effective balance. Instead, Peters plays it as Seth Rogen might have, braying his lines like an uncouth American, while reminding us that he’s actually Canadian — a distinction that supplies a running gag that manages to be funny exactly never. More amusing is the revelation that nearly all interactions rely on khat, a local drug Jay is expected to bring to interviews, implying that Somalia may be a stoner’s paradise and that he may be uniquely qualified to understand it.
What at first feels incongruous about “Dabka” turns out to be its greatest insight into Somali culture, as the film communicates the strange way in which certain millennia-old customs still flourish amid third-world conditions (“Malaria is very rampant here, as is rats,” Jay’s host tells him). The movie repeatedly makes the point that Somalia is a “land of poets,” where ancient people resolved their disputes with language — which, of course, is directly at odds with the image we see today of skinny, snaggle-toothed bandits wielding AK-47s. On closer inspection, the very idea of piracy betrays a certain Western bias, discounting the fact that the impoverished locals see themselves as “saviors of the sea,” striking back at the giant ships who overfish their waters like a kind of vigilante Coast Guard.
A number of recent documentaries have done a better job of explaining the complex situation in Somalia (best in class is Thymaya Payne’s “Stolen Seas”), but that’s not necessarily “Dabka’s” job. Buckley intends to be entertaining, and it’s no small feat that he does so while offering a more nuanced view than such white-hero thrillers as “Captain Phillip” and “A Hijacking” (both terrific films in their own right, however one-sided). Jaymay be the audience proxy here, but he’s something of a buffoon, while the scene-stealer is none other than Barkhad Abdi, the Somali actor Oscar-nominated for his almost-feral performance in “Captain Phillips.” It’s gratifying to see how Abdi’s 100-watt charisma adapts to a less menacing character here, as Buckley goes out of its his way to give roles to African actors across the board, identifying their refugee status in the end credits.