By Liam Lacey
Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen, best known for the 2012 Oscar-nominated child soldier drama War Witch, attempts a high-concept romance in Eye on Juliet, about a heartbroken security operator in Detroit who uses a drone robot to cyberstalk a North African woman.
With its talking robots, cross-cultural differences and far-fetched romantic plot, Eye on Juliet might have made more sense as a romantic comedy. It never feels credible as a sincere-to-a-fault cross-cultural drama.
An opening scene sees the pale ginger-haired, blue-eyed Gordon (English actor Joe Cole) in a noisy nightclub begging his girlfriend not to dump him before he gets tossed out the door by the bouncer. After a brief wound-licking period, Gordon returns to his security job as a remote drone robot operator.
Right off, his overbearing alpha male colleague Peter (Brent Skagford) promptly installs a dating app on Gordon’s phone and tells him the cure is to get out there and get laid. Despite Gordon’s depressing text exchanges, women seem anxious to meet him for coffee and/or sex though he’s too sad to enjoy either.
Also, Gordon’s job is basically the world’s dullest video game. Every day, he sits and stares at a monitor showing various video feeds of an oil pipeline threaded between sand dunes somewhere in the North African desert, while his colleague Peter takes a nap.
The video is sent from various “hexapods” — six-legged vacuum-cleaner-sized machines that scamper, talk various languages, open windows, and fire guns when Gordon uses his joystick and buttons in the right way. When he speaks into a microphone in English, the robot on the other side of the ocean addresses anyone who gets near the pipeline in Arabic.
Something else the robots can do is secretly follow people. That attribute comes in handy after Gordon spies Ayusha (Lina El Arabi), a spirited Arab woman who rides her electric bike out into the desert for secret meetings with her boyfriend, Kaarim (Faycal Zeglat).
Through electronic eavesdropping, Gordon learns that Ayusha’s parents are forcing her to marry an older man and she and Kaarim are plotting to leave the country, even if it means paying for passage on a dangerous refugee boat crossing the Mediterranean. Risking his job, Gordon plots a way to help.
While the theme of strangers becoming close through technology is tantalizing, Eye on Juliet is content to float at a Nicholas Sparks-like emotional depth. As Gordon, Cole is plausible as a gruff, damaged young man who has had his heart stomped on. It’s even believable that he might be liable to focus on an idealized woman from another country.
As for Ayusha, the remote object of Gordon’s affection, we barely get more than a sketch. We do not even know, for example, what country she lives in. Her traditional parents (Mbarek El Mahmoudi and Amal Ayouch) are painted as cliched hardliners, desperate to get their daughter married and “not starve” yet she works in a cyber cafe where she handles international money transfers and seems capable of taking care of herself.
Stories needn’t be politically impeccable to be thoughtful and moving. Still, there’s something tone-deaf about a story of an Arab girl who needs an American boy and his drone to save her from her oppressive culture.
Eye on Juliet. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Starring Joe Cole, Lina El Arabi, Brent Skagford, and Faycal Zeglat. Opens April 20 in limited release.