'Amira & Sam': SIFF Review

Sam & Amira Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of SIFF

Sam & Amira Film Still - H 2014

Martin Starr comes into his own in Sean Mullin's fine debut.

Martin Starr plays a vet taking care of an Iraqi immigrant in Sean Mullin's debut.

SEATTLE -- A movie that handles race, class and militarism with a light touch, Sean Mullin's Amira & Sam is at bottom a romance whose protagonists don't quite fit in the worlds that raised them. A welcome change for lead Martin Starr, who has spent 15 years in the shadow of the dork he played on Freaks and Geeks, the movie will rely on his name to attract attention (especially given the bump Silicon Valley has given him) but will win viewers over with its own modest charms.

Clean-shaven and without his glasses, Starr looks the part of a soldier who has recently returned to New York City from the Middle East. Where he once specialized in deer-in-headlights gazes, here the actor plays a man whose quiet demeanor reflects years of keeping his impulses in check. Sam has a sense of humor and even dreams of being a stand-up comic, but he finds it hard connecting with strangers in the civilian world.

Going to visit a war buddy (Laith Nakli) who was his translator in Iraq, he is attracted to the man's niece Amira (Dina Shihabi, sweet behind her standoffishness), an Iraqi refugee. Amira enjoys mainstream Western entertainment -- hawking pirated movies on Canal Street, she enthuses to strangers about their plots: "Sir, in this movie, Jim Carrey says yes to everything!" -- but wants nothing to do with an American soldier. The fact that Sam is now fluent in Arabic eases her distrust of him only slightly.

The two are stuck together when Amira, on the run from immigration officials, is forced to leave her uncle's apartment and come stay with Sam. He tries to win her trust just as he's embarking on a very different challenge: His cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), a hedge-fund manager, is offering Sam a huge commission to help him connect with older, wealthy veterans who might become clients. We smell the exploitation here before Sam does and understand how big a problem it will be given the ethical standards he displays early in the film.

Though Amira's understanding of the financial world is limited to Wall Street and its kin, Mullin isn't given to the blunt-object moralizing Oliver Stone might employ here. The temptations of Sam's new job are small and human -- not supermodels and luxury cars but the chance to socialize with older men like Jack (David Rasche), who have succeeded in Charlie's world but prefer the company of someone who has served his country. (Under the direction of Mullin, who attended West Point, these conversations are authentic and satisfying even for a viewer with misgivings about the military.)

Sam's moment of moral crisis coincides tidily with an opportunity to protect Amira (who has by now grown very fond of him) from xenophobes, but the overlap doesn't feel contrived. Having downplayed its love story at the start, the picture swells romantically in an unexpectedly pleasing way. It may not be enough to convince audiences that Starr should be Hollywood's next romantic lead, but for these two characters, the chemistry is just right.

Production company: Five by Eight Productions

Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche

Director-screenwriter: Sean Mullin

Producers: Terry Leonard, Erich Lochner, Matt Miller

Executive producers: Meg Montagnino-Jarrett, James Ponsoldt, Peter Sobiloff

Director of photography: Daniel Vecchione

Production designer: Sara K. White

Costume designer: Donna Maloney

Editor: Julian Robinson

No rating, 87 minutes