Israeli checkpoints are nothing to fear compared to the indignities of George W. Bush’s America in writer-director Cherien Dabis’ earnest-to-a-fault immigration melodrama, a Sundance favorite surging with good intentions and fine performances, consistently undercut by hackneyed TV-movie tropes.
The film is carried by a bright, sunny performance from the invaluable Nisreen Faour as Muna, a Palestinian divorcee who emigrates from the West Bank to suburban Illinois with her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) in tow. As only a lethal combination of rotten luck and poor screenwriting contrivances could conspire, their plane lands a scant couple of hours after the U.S. forces have marched into Iraq. And that’s just the beginning.
It’s not an easy time to be an Arab in America. Muna and Fadi share a guest room in an already crowded house belonging to her homesick, fiercely traditional sister Raghda (The Visitor’s terrific Hiam Abbass) and the family’s tight financial circumstances are punctuated by random acts of bigotry from the local yokels.
Faour makes an unlikely leading lady, to say the least. Her Muna is a large woman with an even larger spirit of generosity. It’s frankly impossible not to like her. An experienced banker discovering far too late that Palestinian college degrees don’t mean much on the U.S. job market, she takes a job at White Castle, slinging burgers and fudging the truth for her family honor’s sake—pretending to work at a financial office next door.
Young Fadi’s got it even worse, nicknamed “Osama” by the schoolyard bullies and falling into druggy mischief with his bad-girl cousin Salma (Arrested Development’s original bad-girl cousin Mabey herself, Alia Shawkat.) They stir up shit with rednecks and hang out with a (gasp!) black kid, but these stakes steel feel awful low for a major motion picture.
We witness a bit of vandalism and some brief fisticuffs, but also nothing in the movie that eventually can’t be fixed by just a little of Muna’s indominatable pluck and tireless work ethic. As much as I enjoyed spending time with these characters and appreciate Amreeka’s warm, bouyant tone, it’s hard not to bristle at the overall after-school special vibe. There’s a much tougher, stronger movie to be made out of this story. C+
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