EmptyCherien Dabis' "Amreeka" lives up to its positive pre-Sundance buzz. The film is terrific, especially because American immigrant stories like "Amreeka" have played in Park City for years.
Debis, a Palestinian-American, has re-energized the genre with refreshing wit, honest emotions, incisive observations and a perfect cast she literally flew around the world to find. What's more, this is a thoroughly professional indie film; no allowances need be made for rough production values or budgetary shortcomings.
"Amreeka" — the Arabic word for America — is a festival director's dream, but it will face an uphill struggle in theatrical distribution. Critical acclaim and fest honors could pave the way for it to become a modest indie hit. If nothing else, Dabis, in her first feature, immediately gets added to the impressive list of Sundance discoveries.
Adding poignancy, to say nothing of dramatic heft, to this immigrant story is that it concerns a Palestinian mother and her teenage son, who leave their Israeli- occupied homeland for Illinois just as U.S. forces invade Iraq. Few immigrants have been greeted with such fear and animosity as American "patriots" fail to distinguish among Arab groups or to realize this family isn't even Muslim.
When Muna Farah (stage actress and director Nisreen Faour) gets a U.S. Green Card in the mail, she is shocked. She has forgotten having applied for it when she was married. Her son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), whose educational and job opportunities are limited in Palestine, is overjoyed — he can't wait to flee his home.
The two fly to the American heartland, where her sister, Raghda (Hiam Abbass), and Raghda's doctor husband, Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda), live in a small town. Muna loses all of her money in an airport misfortune then finds bank work impossible to find, despite her experience and degrees. Meanwhile, Nabeel's practice has all but vanished with the Iraq invasion.
The film deals with the setbacks suffered by these two FOBs — fresh-off-the-boaters — but Dabis also shows the other side of the American Dream with a rich sense of humor. Small cultural misunderstandings, the vital importance of clothes and attitude to get through high school and rousing family quarrels all trigger big laughs.
In this way, Dabis subtlely shifts the tale away from victimhood to one of human nature finding unexpected ways to triumph under pressure. She nails the universal in every instance and catches people with their pants down, whether it's the doctor's unhealthy obsession with the nightly news or the mother's obsession with weight loss, having lost her husband to a skinny woman.
The cast is uniformly wonderful, but let's single out the two leads. Faour, working for the first time partially in English, delivers a empathetic portrait of a woman who is far braver than she realizes and startles even herself when she learns what type of pride and feelings of self-worth are necessary to survive in a new world. Muallem, all of 16, beautifully captures the vacillation of a newcomer who wants to embrace a new life but is torn by homesickness and displacement.
Tobias Datum gives the hand-held cinematography different looks for Ramallah — warm but sun-blasted — and the U.S. (where Winnipeg, Manitoba, plays the Illinois town), overcast and a tad monotonous with lots of artificial lighting. Kareem Roustom's Middle Eastern-flavored score also contributes greatly. (partialdiff)