A Tunisian couple in late middle age, Riadh (Mohamed Dhrif) and Nazli (Mouna Mejri), are worried about their 19-year-old son, Sami (Zakaria Ben Ayed). Assailed by migraines, nausea and dark mood swings, Sami may just be anxious about his upcoming college entrance exams, or he could be sickening with something more serious. As Riadh prepares to retire from his job as a crane operator on the Tunis docks, times are hard and money is tight. But these doting parents still scrape together every penny they can to secure medical help for their only child.
One night, Sami disappears from the family apartment without warning. He leaves behind a curt note explaining that he has fled to Syria to join a jihadi group, unnamed in the film but clearly based on Islamic State. Riadh and Nazli are shattered, shellshocked, numb with disbelief. Eventually, a desperate Riadh borrows money from friends and blows the last of his meager retirement funds to turn detective, retracing Sami's journey to the border crossing between Turkey and Syria.
Naturalistic and nuanced, almost to a fault, Dear Son lingers a little too long on its low-key domestic build-up before delivering its gut-wrenching twist. But after Sami's departure for Syria, the film takes a more philosophical trajectory, looking beyond the almost incidental jihadi subplot to chronicle the slow-motion impact of life-changing loss on a father, mother and their marriage. As the timeline extends, there are births and deaths, heavy blows and hard choices.
Implicit in Ben Attia's state-of-the-nation rumination is a critique of how the birthplace of the Arab Spring is now plagued by the twin horrors of Islamist terrorism and economic stagnation. But the picture he paints is not wholly fatalistic. Elevated by Dhrif's soulful, haunted performance and Omar Aloulou's spare, plaintive score, Dear Son finally moves beyond tragedy and becomes a quietly absorbing tribute to the power of human resilience.