Movie Review: Immigrant-Themed 'Amreeka' Covers Familiar Dramatic Territory

Melkar Muallem's Fadi faces derision.
Melkar Muallem's Fadi faces derision. (National Geographic Entertainment)
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By Jan Stuart
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 25, 2009

You've seen this story before, if not lived it yourself.

An immigrant arrives in the United States from overseas, armed with a college degree and a surfeit of life experience on her shoulders. Halfway round the game board, she now must return to the "Go" square of her new home, scraping together a minimum-wage income scouring toilets, standing watch at apartment house entrances or flipping burgers for a fast-food chain.

The latter scenario sums up the plight of "Amreeka's" Muna (Nisreen Faour), a middle-class, divorced mother who leaves her home and banking job in a Palestinian territory with the hopes of a more secure life in small-town Illinois with her 16-year-old son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem).

Muna's ultimately uplifting saga reflects a burgeoning industry of independent films that illuminate the travails of immigrants. These films, most notably "Maria Full of Grace," "Sugar" and "The Visitor," must themselves first pass through the American indie version of customs, the Sundance Film Festival, where Hollywood players bond over movies that glorify the fish out of water who triumphs over adversity.

The Sundance-certified "Amreeka" (Arabic for "America") is the modest but worthy debut feature of Cherien Dabis, an American of Jordanian-Palestinian parentage. Dabis's resilient protagonist has a distinct advantage over the illegal immigrants and non-English-speakers who populate the aforementioned films: Muna has a green card, she and her son are comfortably bilingual, and they have successful relatives waiting stateside to give them a leg up. What neither of them can anticipate, however, is the burden of being Palestinian in America as it launches its attack on Iraq.

Chief among the film's variegated pleasures is the slow but palpable emergence of Muna's dormant inner spirit, a transformation that the doughy-cheeked Faour effects with a discreet and winning charm. Muna is compelled to draw upon her survivor's instincts with increasing frequency as she toils at White Castle for minimum wage, intercedes as her son fends off derision from high school classmates, and negotiates brewing tensions between her sister (the redoubtable Palestinian actor Hiam Abass) and brother-in-law (Yussef Abu Warda), whose successful medical practice is crumbling amid the incipient hostility toward Arab Americans.

Inevitably, perhaps, Dabis resorts to familiar tropes of the immigrant genre (a romantic subplot involving Muna and a deceptively starchy educator is redolent of "The Visitor"). Abetted by an observant cast, however, she navigates politically and emotionally fraught terrain with a warming inflection of humor and a mother-hen's attention to the needs of all of her characters.

Amreeka (97 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row cinemas) is rated PG-13 for brief drug use and language. In English and subtitled Arabic.

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