Once a year, a movie about an immigrant, with or without a family, appears upon our screens . . . and if you include small indie and foreign releases, make that once a month. The archetypal hero is either impoverished, in need of love, and/or relentlessly experiencing bigotry at the hands of the local populace, the police, and other governmental authorities. (Goodbye Solo (2009), The Visitor (2008), plus Live and Become (2005) are a few of the exemplary examples of this genre.)
With Amreeka, writer/director Cherien Dabis certainly doesn't reinvent the genre or make it feel newborn, but with warmth and skill, and a dash of wit, she makes an old trope feel fresh.
Based upon memories of her own family's existence during the first Iraq war, Dabis's tale begins with a divorced mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour), and her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), bristling under the daily West Bank existence of roadblocks and interrogations by Israeli soldiers. Add an ex-husband who's shacking up with a much younger, sleeker woman, a constantly nagging mother, and the possibility that Fadi might wind up in an Israeli prison for insubordination, and it's clear why Muna jumps at the chance of moving to the United States. Fadi must have a safe future, so it's off to a small town in Illinois where her sister Raghda's family has already been settled for over a decade.
Of course, there are obstacles a long the way.
Somehow Muna and Fadi make it past passport security, but not without first losing their illegal tin of cookies in which Muna had hid her life savings. Uh-oh!
Maybe life will get easier.
Not according to Raghda (Hiam Abbass): "Despite all the years I've lived here, I'm still homesick. The feeling doesn't go away. It's like a tree that's pulled out by its roots and planted somewhere else. It doesn't grow."
Muna won't accept that dour philosophy.
With only $200.00 to her name, she starts seeking a job as a bookkeeper at bank after bank, but winds up behind the counter at a White Castle. Meanwhile, Fadi enrolls in high school only to be quickly accused of terrorist sympathies.
But this is a film with a light-hearted soul and numerous comedic moments and several ironic ones, so there's also a phone call from mom back on the West Bank: "If you see the president, tell him to get off our backs."
And there's Fadi's introduction to pot-smoking and cool clothes. And Muna trying to sell weight-loss aids to fat women in search of a burger at White Castle. There's even the possibility of romance.
My Big Fat Arab Wedding? No way.
Amreeka seldom rings less than true thanks to its cast, some of whom have experienced the pain of living in a society where tomorrow may never come -- or if it does, it comes haltingly, often with a tempered hope.
With a scope that is small, Dabis has captured the universal essence of this hope. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell teaches "The Arts in New York City" at City College. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, The Advocate, and dozens of other publications.