“If you’ll hear my voice, or you’ll find my recording empty. With no sound on it or feel, I have no choice.”
The first thing we hear is a recording, starting with the words above. This is a message from Grandmother longing to see the grandson she’s been deprived of seeing for years. This heartbreaking message sparks a little boy’s journey in Going to Heaven, an empathetic coming of age story from United Arab Emirates. Director Saeed Saleem Al Murry brings a lot of heart into the film with believable characters, a realistic setting and a grounded storyline.
The grandson is the 11 year old Sultan (Jomaa Al-Zaabi). After his mother’s death years ago, Sultan’s had to live with his father, his new stepmother (Hind Zurardi) and his little half-sister Fatoom (Hoor Al Zarroni). He longs for the familial bond he’s had with his late mother. He sees that chance when he finds an audio recording of his estranged grandmother (Mariam Sultan) hidden in his dad’s suitcase. Hearing her longing to see him again, Sultan becomes determined to see her again. With his best friend Saud (Ahmed Al-Zaabi) coming along, Sultan takes a 117km trek to Alufjairah in hopes of reuniting with his estranged grandmother.
Though the film centers around Sultan’s attempt to see his grandmother, the film’s emotional core is his friendship with Saud. Through their cross country trip, Sultan and Saud find their friendship tested. They are so sure this trip will be a breeze, but reality’s quick to correct them. Saud thinks he can sweet talk them out of situations. Sometimes, he succeeds, sometimes adults see through him. It’s through this experience they see the strength of their friendship. Saud proves himself a true wingman (or wingboy) as his help goes beyond transportation via motorbike. Though he does point out the possibility that they might never find his grandmother, Saud still provides support in Sultan’s journey. He also isn’t afraid to rein Sultan in when he wants to sleep on the streets. When he refuses, Saud sits by him.
Writer-Director Saeed Salmeen Al-Murry gives us some very realistic portrayals of kids. Al-Murray captures those childhood moments when we think we can get away with trouble by not telling our parents. When the stepmother refuses to allow Fatoom to wear a niqab until she’s older, she puts it on when she’s not around. The dialogue fleshes the kids out as smart yet with some naïve mindsets. My personal favourite line is Saud’s mantra: “Don’t be afraid. We are young and won’t die.” Al-Murray’s also fortunate to have two great child actors to bring this dialogue to life. Jomaa and Ahmed Al-Zaabi play off each other with grounded realism, creating a believable friendship. Though it’s dangerous for kids to drive across country by themselves, they’re so sympathetic that you root for them to get through. Jomaa especially stands out in his heartwarming performance, especially in a scene where he imagines some wheelchair-bound old lady is Grandmother and fantasizes pushing her around the market.
Going to Heaven wears its heart on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to do so. Though it takes place in the United Arab Emirates, the characters are universal in their personal relationships and emotional longing. Al-Murray writes and directs the characters with grounded realism and empathetic understanding. All of the actors match Al-Murray with rugged and masterful performances. Put them together, you see how films can transcend cultural barriers to capture that innermost core that connects us all.