The story begins in 1975 and revolves around 16-year-old Tarek (Rami Doueiri), who, with his best friend Omar (Mohamad Chamas), is first seen on a school's playground, cheering at the downing of a jet fighter. Not just cheering, but filming as well; Omar always carries with him a Super 8 camera. Then the soldiers start filling the streets. Tarek's mother Hala (Carmen Lebbos) is panicked at the sight of men walking through town with AK-47s propped on their hips. She wishes to flee Beirut immediately and go anywhere else, but her husband Riad (Joseph Bou Nassar) is too proud of what the family has made of themselves in the city, and too wrapped up in his books, to notice how much things have fallen apart on the streets, much less to imagine leaving.
Tarek, of course, wouldn't dream of leaving yet; to him things are just getting good. As rival gangs of Muslims, Christians, Palestinians, and Israelis divide up the city, Tarek's school winds up on the opposite side of a barricade, mercifully off limits. (Unfortunately, so does the one store that will develop the film he and Omar have shot--a matter of pressing importance, as one reel contains lingering close-ups of Omar's delectable new aunt.) His familiar haunts are more exciting now, as old friends have taken up arms to guard their neighborhoods with rifles and bazookas. A further incentive to stay comes from a young Christian, May (Rola Al Amin), who is an attractive new arrival to Tarek's apartment house.
Tarek moves through all this with cheerful confidence (young Doueiri, the director's brother, perfectly captures Tarek's smug precocity, even making it charming). He frequently marches up to armed guards and talks himself into trouble, forcing the more pragmatic Omar to try and get him out of it. Apolitical himself, Tarek can't imagine that ideologies should interfere with neighbors getting along, or that they should keep him from hanging out with May just because of her religion.
West Beirut takes place during a time of sectarianism, religious conflicts, and murder, but turns out to be a lovely salute to cities--due in part to Tarek's refusal to hole himself up in a single part of segregated Beirut. Doueiri's roaming, handheld camera unpretentiously wanders after Tarek down alleys and through hallways, noticing everything with equal delight. Rather than take sides in the conflict, West Beirut casts a plague on all the houses, and instead salutes simple pleasures: walking through market stalls, eating all your lunches at your favorite falafel stand, smoking, weaving your bike through traffic. In Tarek's neighborhood, the morning call of the muezzin is invariably drowned out by the hilariously profane screaming of a neighbor berating the downstairs tenant; centuries of tradition make a pathetic sideshow compared to everyday urban friction.
Ultimately, the film's hero isn't a fighter in the conflict, or even from Tarek's family, though the movie stands in loving awe of Tarek's mother's fearsome protectiveness toward her son, as she knocks over anything in her path to snatch him from bed and drag him to shelter when the bombs start to drop. No, the hero is the legendary madam of a brothel, who invites everyone to drop by, drink some whiskey, and dance and sleep with her girls: All are welcome, no faith is excluded.
It's this cosmopolitan spirit that the film mourns as the primary victim of the war, the one thing that Tarek eventually realizes is being destroyed. In the course of the film, Tarek loses his naiveté and wakes up to what a horror everything around him has become. Though that may be the standard conclusion to a story like this, it is to Ziad Doueiri's credit that he manages to avoid so many clichés on his way there--the most impressive of which is that he doesn't resort to making the two friends bitter enemies over the course of the film. In fact, just before the film's end, there is a lovely scene between Tarek and Omar where both confirm their love for each other, even as they grapple with their newfound awareness. This awareness, the film's tragic final moments make clear, comes too late, however; by then the beautiful city has been lost, along with everything beautiful in it.