|Nisreen Faour stars in a film about the US-Arab immigrant experience. (National Geographic Entertainment)|
Complications amid a clash of cultures
In “Amreeka,’’ Muna, a Palestinian divorcee, and her bright teenage son, Fadi, move in with her sister’s upper-middle-class family in a small Illinois town. When Muna (Nisreen Faour) takes a job working at White Castle and Fadi (Melkar Muallem) enrolls in public school, the expected culture clashes ensue.
But this sensitively made movie is more than dim Americans making terrorist jokes. It’s one of the richer movies you’re likely to see about average Arabs in America. In some ways the homesickness and ambivalence Muna, Fadi, and her sister, Raghda (Hiam Abbass), feel is a typical stranger-in-a-strange-land trope. The difference is that writer and director Cherien Dabis, making her feature debut, creates appealing characters out of that sense of foreignness.
The movie begins in the West Bank, where the routine of life has numbed Muna to herself. She works at a bank about 15 minutes from the home she shares in Bethlehem with her mother. Thanks to the Israeli-policed checkpoints and that hideous concrete barrier, the trip to her office sometimes takes two hours. She still runs into the ex-husband who left her for a younger, thinner woman, though it’s hard to imagine that woman being more beautiful than voluptuous Muna.
She brings her fatigue and frustration to Illinois, but in America she also acquires wonder, ambition, an interest in dieting, and the ability to stand up for herself. All that lands her is the job at a strip-mall White Castle, of which she is so ashamed that she tells her family she works at the adjacent bank. There’s some good comedy in Muna changing out of her blue uniform and into her fine professional clothes to, say, find out why the newly rebellious Fadi is in trouble at school. He’s fighting the kids who taunt him with racism.
The movie flirts with too-muchness: coincidences abound; Fadi’s nastiness toward his mother comes almost out of nowhere; and, obviously, the evocatively named White Castle doubles as the sweet spot for most of the drama. Some of the timing feels opportunistic. Muna and Fadi come west at the outset of the US invasion of Iraq. And there are moments when the family’s home becomes a West Bank metaphor, not least when one of Muna’s spoiled nieces uses tape to create a border down the center of her bedroom to keep her little sister penned in. In the West Bank, Muna and Fadi lacked their own country. In Illinois, they lack their own home.
Dabis doesn’t overdo it, though. She’s based “Amreeka’’ on parts of her life growing up in a rural town during the Persian Gulf War. The politics of the moment only heighten the stakes for these characters. Fadi’s confident, thoroughly American cousin, Salma (Alia Shawkat), debates the invasion with her classmates. The war and the racist suspicions it brings out in some people take their toll on Raghda’s husband, Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda), a doctor whose practice is losing patients, putting a financial strain on a family that has prided itself on its comfortable, bourgeois life.
The filmmaker’s skill with actors partially explains why her movie works. They find wonderful complicated human details in these characters, especially Warda, who makes Nabeel a much warmer man than the boor he initially appears to be, and Shawkat, whose natural comic rhythms deserve a movie of their own.
Dabis also has a strong, authentic sense of scale. Everything feels just right for a movie set in a small, Midwestern town, even the school principal’s extracurricular interest in Muna. As the principal, Joseph Ziegler has a scene in a police station that roughly recalls an important scene from “The Visitor,’’ which also stars Hiam Abbass. That smart, poignant movie was about a middle-aged white guy’s life being opened up and brightened by a couple of lively immigrants. Dabis works from the other, scandalously underexplored side of such stories. With any luck, she’ll get to make a career out of it.