Even for a small film of surpassing quality, "Amreeka" has gotten a surprising amount of recognition. It was a success at Sundance, the opening night of New York's prestigious New Directors/New Films series and took home the coveted FIPRESCI critics prize at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes.
That notice is unexpected because at its heart this debut feature by writer-director Cherien Dabis has the kind of warm touch and playful disposition that don't usually go with widespread approval from the august guardians of cinema's gates.
But "Amreeka," as its title, the Arabic word for "America," indicates, has other things going on as well. This is a pointed, emotional story of a divorced Palestinian woman and her son who immigrate to the U.S. just after the invasion of Iraq, a story that benefits from Dabis' background as a child growing up in the Midwest during the Gulf War as the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother.
So the filmmaker understands from personal experience that immigration sagas are at once the saddest, the happiest and the most quintessentially American of stories. Every new group of arrivals faces the same general challenges as well as their own specific ones in their quest to come to terms with this most welcoming and most forbidding of new homes.
This piquant film brings a keen and serious eye as well as that feeling for affectionate human comedy to this fraught situation, smartly avoiding both stridency and sentimentality in the process -- it's an elegant balancing act. "Amreeka" also showcases the months Dabis, who knew that her film would live or die based on its acting, devoted to casting sessions all around the world. All her choices are excellent, but it is Palestinian actress Nisreen Faour as the irrepressible Muna who truly owns the picture.
A warm, empathetic character who benefits from Faour's alive, ebullient presence, Muna is the kind of effusive person who can't help offering a U.S. Customs officer the unsolicited observation that "my husband, he is not a good man." Yet it is not only Muna's passions that come to life on her face, her pain and her sorrows do as well. Faour's gift is so strong that any slights to Muna wound us as well.
"Amreeka" opens on the West Bank, where Muna works at a bank where she isn't appreciated and lives with a difficult mother who doesn't hesitate to criticize her weight. We see the life she wants to leave and the elements of it, including the omnipresent border wall and the at-times obdurate Israeli soldiers who guard those borders, that make her want to go.
Still, hers is a comfortable middle-class existence (how often do we see that side of Palestinian life?) and when the green card she's forgotten she applied for for herself and her 16-year-old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) comes through, Muna's not sure she wants to accept it.
Yet though a relative counsels her "they don't even like us over there," it's her son who casts the deciding vote when he reminds her that win, lose or draw, America will be "better than being prisoners in your own country." Or will it?
Helping Muna make her decision is that her sister Raghda (the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass, seen in "Lemon Tree" and "The Visitor") has been living in the U.S. for 15 years in suburban Illinois, the wife of a successful doctor and the mother of three children.
At least that's the way it was before the Iraq invasion. Once Muna uncertainly navigates U.S. Customs (when asked a question about "occupation," she replies, "Yes, it is occupied for 40 years"), she discovers that the doctor's practice has been compromised by anti-Arab sentiment and that his older daughter Salma (Alia Shawkat) is having a hard time at school for the same reason.
That situation plus a heartbreaking mishap at Customs puts Muna in desperate need of work of any kind. Despite her experience and her fluency in several languages, no local bank wants to hire her and only White Castle steps up to the plate and offers her both a job and the beginning of a new adventure.
"Amreeka" moves back and forth between what happens to Muna in her life and the difficulties her son faces in his. America is more than they bargained for, as it always is, and it is the gift of this film that while it allows its characters' problems to recede, it does not glibly insist they've gone away. It is true, as Raghda insists, that "a tree pulled out by its roots and placed elsewhere, it doesn't grow," but if anyone has the life force to turn that around, it's Muna. --
MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief drug use involving teens, and some language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight in Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A.