In Arabic and French with English subtitles, "Caramel" is named for its sugaring beauty treatment that includes water and lemon juice in the Middle East.
This rather engaging romancer out of Beirut has no political agenda, though having feelings for more serious issues when it concerns the Christian and Muslim communities. Writer/director/star Nadine Labaki adeptly shows how culture can transcend its setting.
There are predictaments for women toiling in a Beirut beauty salon. The comely Layale, played by Labaki, is a 30-year-old woman in an illicit relationship hoping it will turn her partner in her favor. And, she's not that aware of a young officer (Adel Karam) starting to be beguiled by her.
The young Nisrine (Yasmine Elmasri), who also is a salon employee, is reticient about mentioning to her Muslim fiancee that she isn't a virgin. Among the others, Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is attracted to a woman client (Fatmeh Safa), while a diva/thespian friend (Ie Aouad) is still auditioning for parts more for those in their prime.
Labaki handles the fortunes and misfortunes of her untrained ensemble with a natural touch, not aiming for any big message. It's a community not so dissimilar from other movies of the same ilk, like "Venus Beauty Institute".
The titular meaning of abating unwanted hair is metaphor for these complicated ladies' personal lives. One gets the impression that there will be difficulties before eventual success. The cast, especially Labaki, as her character hangs on for an unlikely hotel rendezvous, is engaging throughout, though the unpolished script never achieves the poignancy that might have been anticipated.
If "Caramel" isn't truly savory or that brisk, there is a confidence in the disparate emotions that makes it less pasty and hard-boiled that makes for safe escape, notably for women, and those who are enamored with golden sun-drenched lensing.