- Written and directed by Cherien Dabis
- Starring Nisreen Faour and Melkar Muallem
- Classification: 14A
A feel-good comedy about a Palestinian mother who moves to rural Illinois with her teenaged son, Amreeka is a kind of stealth political film that confronts issues of ethnic tension and American xenophobia.
First-time filmmaker Cherien Dabis (a writer on the television series The L-Word ) based the story on her own experience, growing up as the child of Jordanian-Palestinian immigrants. In the anti-Arab hysteria of the first Gulf War, her family received daily death threats, and her father's medical practice went into decline when his patients quit. The script for Amreeka (Arabic for America) has no bitterness and, in fact, portrays the United States as the place where people from many lands become one, and everyone enjoys Disneyland and a good hamburger.
Even when it occasionally lapses into sitcom clichés, Amreeka is a hugely likeable movie, thanks to the unaffected warmth of Israeli-Arab star Nisreen Faour. She plays Muna, an amply-built Palestinian divorcée and bank employee, who unexpectedly wins the green-card lottery to the United States. Her sister is already living in Illinois with her family and Muna has a good education which should ease the transition.
The first 20 minutes of the film, shot mostly with a hand-held camera, are a portrait of her life living in Bethlehem and working in Ramallah, where the 15-minute car trip has been extended to two hours on Palestinian-only roads and through Israeli checkpoints. As well, Muna worries about her 16-year-old son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), who sasses an Israeli soldier and finds himself taken out of the car at gun point.
Liam Lacey on AmreekaWatch Globe film critic Liam Lacey's 60-second video review.
Later, during the family's interrogation at Chicago airport, Fadi surrenders a tin of cookies, which, unbeknownst to him, contain the family savings of $2,500. To make matters worse, the year is 2003 - the Gulf War has just begun and anti-Arab feelings are running high.
Broke, jobless and unable to find work, Muna moves in with her sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass), her doctor husband (Yussuf Abu-Warda) and their three daughters. The change from the Mideast to the Midwest goes from summer to winter and the camera pulls back to reveal the widespread houses and snowy landscapes. (Illinois is played by suburban Winnipeg, thanks to the Canadian co-producers.)
The house is overcrowded and everyone has to share living space, which serves as a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for occupation. One daughter puts a line of tape down the middle of her room, marking out her territory and preventing her sister from using the bedroom door.
Embarrassed by her inability to find a decent job, Muna pretends to her relatives that she has landed a position at the local bank. In reality, she's working alongside a recent high-school dropout with a ring through his lip, flipping burgers at the local White Castle.
At school, Fadi, mocked for his name, struggles with the teen bigots, though he's helped by his cousin, Sama ( Arrested Development 's Alia Shawkat), and her African-American boyfriend.
Solace comes, somewhat conveniently, from the kindly, divorced Jewish principal, Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), who wins Muna's affection by telling her, "I don't think you're fat at all."
Considered separately, the events that happen to Muna and her family border on dire - financial woes, accidents, a beating and an arrest - but in the context of the film, they're essentially opportunities for Muna to demonstrate her indomitable optimism.
At the same time, director-writer Dabis misses few opportunities to find playful humour in the midst of conflict. Sometimes, Muna's malapropisms feel forced ("Who beat you in?" she asks her bruised and dishevelled son). More pointed is the giant sign near the White Castle where Muna works, which has a couple of letters missing: "Support our oops."
The fact that the slogan also exists on a commercially available T-shirt doesn't diminish its bite.