How well do you know your children?
And how much has 9/11 affected what you think about other people -- even your friends and neighbors?
Those are questions that viewers likely will be asking themselves after seeing "Torn," from director Jeremiah Birnbaum and writer Michael Richter. The film, which was set and filmed in the Bay Area, challenges viewers to not only figure out the mystery behind a tragic explosion but to come to grips with what attitudes and stereotypes we carry around (whether we know it or not) in a post-9/11 world.
An explosion in a suburban mall food court kills a handful of people. Two mothers -- one Pakistani, one white -- lose teenage sons in the blast, and they form an unusual yet touching bond while enduring their sorrow in the midst of a police investigation.
When authorities suddenly conclude the explosion wasn't an accident but a bombing, the dynamics of the relationship change.
One boy, the son of Muslim-American real estate agent Maryam (a terrific Mahnoor Baloch), is initially blamed for the blast. Then the other teen, whose mother, Lea, is a custodial worker (an intense Dendrie Taylor), is fingered. It sets up a scenario of finger-pointing that is stripped from the headlines of the past decade. And a friendship that once brought comfort to two grieving women unravels.
It turns out that the Muslim boy had been attending a mosque frequented by radicals, unbeknownst to his mother; meanwhile, Lea discovers her son had been so harshly bullied that he had threatened to kill some of the people who wind up dying in the bombing.
What happens from there is best left unsaid, except that "Torn" capitalizes on a gripping and emotional storyline to deliver a terrific ending.
While it's a small-budget film that lacks sophisticated effects and big-name actors (John Heard as a police inspector is probably the most recognizable cast member), "Torn" strikes a heavy chord. The suburban everyday life it portrays can be dry, but it will feel all too realistic to many of us (I saw at least one Seeno home on screen). After a while, suburban Bay Area viewers might get the feeling that if they saw their own neighborhood emerge on screen, it wouldn't be too surprising.
Of course, one aspect of this is that the look and production values here simply will not match what most of us are used to seeing in a big-screen feature film. That means "Torn" needs to rely on its intense storyline and post-9/11 landscape to hold us. And once you get past that -- the strong performances by Baloch and Taylor make it easier to do so -- you can settle into film's steady, at times almost glacial pace and focus on the point that Birnbaum and Richter are trying to make: It's a complicated world, and we're making it more difficult by being so ready to point fingers. And if you find yourself debating how you fit into that scenario, so much the better.
"Torn" likely won't take Hollywood by storm or drum up Oscar buzz. But with its focus on ordinary, realistic people dealing with an event that is all too possible, it does something a lot of better-financed Hollywood movies don't: It makes you think.
* * ½
Cast: Mahnoor Baloch, Faran Tahir, Dendrie Taylor, John Heard
Director: Jeremiah Birnbaum
Running Time: 1 hour,