In her sleep, Lamya dreams of fireflies: Their yellow glow guides her through the grassy green fields of her imagination. In these dreams, Lamya, dressed in a plain white dress, frolics and giggles. For this 12-year-old Syrian girl, these visions are a way to escape — if only briefly — her dangerous and restricting reality.
Lamya’s Poem is ostensibly about the titular character’s life in Aleppo in 2016 and how conflict upends it, forcing her and her mother to become refugees. This sensitive tale has the potential to be an affecting film about the detrimental impact of war and how what we vaguely refer to as a “refugee crisis” is man-made. But, unfortunately, the film’s lack of narrative focus prevents it from fulfilling its purpose.
The Bottom Line
Well-intentioned but misses the mark.
The film opens with Lamya (voiced by Millie Davis) waking up from a daydream turned sour, her firefly reveries interrupted by a pair of menacing red eyes. Later, we learn that the “eyes” eerily resemble the infrared lights of soldiers (their nationalities never made clear) — patrolling the streets of Lamya’s neighborhood. The dulcet voice of Lamya’s mother (Aya Bryn) breaks her trance and we, along with Lamya, are gradually transported back to reality, one in which the girl eagerly awaits the arrival of her teacher, Mr. Hamadini (Raoul Bhaneja).
When she sees him approaching her building, an excited Lamya rushes from her post at the window into the other room, where her mother asks perfunctory but well-meaning questions about her assignments and tries to flatten the stubborn collar of Lamya’s dress shirt. The opening moments of Lamya’s Poem assuredly and intimately establish the routine of the protagonist’s life. Like most preteens, Lamya loves to hang out with her friends, listen to music and indulge in the finer things — like ice cream. Where her life differs from many other kids’, however, is that she lives under the constant threat of violence from airstrikes.
But, thankfully, before the film gets to that, it meditates a bit more on Lamya’s life. Instead of attending school, Lamya, presumably like most kids in her neighborhood, is tutored by Mr. Hamadini. This particular visit from her teacher is different, though, because he has brought her a book of Rumi’s poems. “He lived a long time ago,” Mr. Hamadini says of the 13th-century Persian writer. “But millions of people around the world are still inspired and helped by his words.” The graying teacher launches into a story of Rumi and how he was a refugee when he wrote his poems. He tells Lamya they’ll discuss them next time.
Unfortunately, that opportunity never comes. Before Mr. Hamadini and Lamya can meet again, their neighborhood is bombed. Every structure in it, from the corner ice cream store to Lamya’s home, is destroyed. Lamya and her mother are forced to leave Aleppo, selling everything they own to secure spots on a dingy raft heading to an unknown city.
During the perilous journey, Lamya takes refuge in Rumi’s poems. Her fantasies become increasingly vivid, and another plotline emerges. In an alternate reality, set in 1221, Lamya meets the young Rumi, or Jalal (Mena Massoud), as everyone calls him. The young man, not yet a poet, is, for some peculiar reason, trying to plant a reed. He quickly abandons the project, though, and asks Lamya if she’s heading toward the city. The two begin an adventure together, which mostly involves Lamya trying to help Rumi become the great poet in whose work she’ll eventually take solace.
If that all sounds confusing, it’s because it sort of is. Lamya’s Poem has all the makings of a clear-eyed film, but it never quite comes together for me. Part of this has to do with its intentions. It opens as a story about a girl and her mother forced to take a perilous journey, but then sidelines that to explore an alternate universe centered on Rumi and his own development. An argument for this decision could be that the director, Alex Kronemer, wants to emphasize that both Rumi and Lamya are refugees, but there is less commitment to this idea than to the Persian boy’s coming-of-age narrative.
As Lamya retreats into her dreams, the plotline involving Rumi is less compelling than the one that takes place in 2016. The journey that Lamya, her mother and other families from their neighborhood undertake contains enough material for many stories. The film explores them, to a point. The stakes of involuntarily uprooting your entire life are high, and the lessons to be gleaned — about the cost of senseless wars and the humanity of Muslim people — seem more aligned with the film’s purpose. (I should note that it was produced by Unity Production Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting religious bigotry and headed by Kronemer.) Yet Lamya’s Poem chooses to sketch those details instead of burrowing into them. More specificity could have taken the film’s clear interest in good and evil and the power of storytelling to another level. Who are the soldiers patrolling Lamya’s neighborhood? What is their relationship to the townspeople? Where do Lamya and her mother end up?
What the film does instead is gesture at answers to these questions. This approach might be an attempt to gear the project toward a very young audience, although there are moments when the themes are treated in a way that feels more mature. This results in a lack of tonal consistency — one that isn’t helped by the film’s refined but sometimes unengaging animation. While there is merit in a spare drawing style, Lamya’s Poem does not have the narrative heft nor the clear intentions to support it, leaving us with a well-intentioned but confusing project.