Beauty Shop-

in-Beirut, a fem-centric tale of bonding and blow-drying about five Lebanese women and their respective struggles with family, friends, romance and coifs.

Written and directed by Nadine Labaki, who cast herself as the owner of the busy salon, Caramel takes its title from the sugary concoction used to remove unwanted body hair from patrons - but aptly applies to the sweet, sensual tone of the film itself. Set in a culture caught between East and West, between male chauvinism and female empowerment, Labaki's movie isn't about to revolutionize a genre - its charms are modest, but many.

Labaki's Layale is a self-assured businesswoman who nonetheless finds herself in a humiliating affair with a married man - scrambling to find suitable hotels for a tryst while her friends look on, reprovingly. The gorgeous Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri) has a different problem: She's marrying into a conservative Muslim clan, but she is no longer a virgin. Should she risk telling her fiance? Or should she have surgery, as many Lebanese women do, to pass herself off as unspoiled?

Then there's Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), the salon's shampooist, whose eyes light up when her favorite customer - another woman - sashays through the door. It's unclear whether Rima is in the closet or out, but her attraction is palpable. Jamale (Gisele Aouad) is a divorced mother and part-time actress, doing everything she can to stand fast - and slim, and beautiful - against the passage of time.

And Rose (Sihame Haddad), the neighborhood seamstress, is a single woman in her 60s who deflects the overtures of a debonair old gent to tend to her wacky older sister.

Labaki, who studied filmmaking in Lebanon and France, has a deft touch and nice instincts. Her decision to cast mostly nonprofessional actors pays off: Caramel rings true, even if it doesn't ring deep.

Caramel *** (out of four stars)

Directed by Nadine Labaki. With Labaki, Joanna Moukarzel, Gisele Aouad and Yasmine Al Masri. Distributed by Roadside Attractions. In Arabic and French with subtitles.

Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (sex, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz FiveEndText

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.