Monday, November 2, 2009

Movie Review: Amreeka

Amreeka ** ½
Directed By:
Cherian Dabis.
Written By: Cherian Dabis.
Starring: Nisreen Faour (Muna Farah), Melkar Muallem (Fadi Farah), Hiam Abbass (Raghda Halaby), Alia Shawkat (Salma), Jenna Kawar (Rana Halaby), Selena Haddad (Lamis Halaby), Yussuf Abu-Warda (Nabeel Halaby), Joseph Ziegler (Mr. Novatski), Andrew Sannie (James), Daniel Boiteau (Mike), Brodie Sanderson (Matt).

Amreeka is a story of a family that feels like they do not belong anywhere. The movie opens in Palestine, where Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) works in a bank to send her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) to private school. Every day, she has to cross a checkpoint twice, and a process that normally took 15 minutes has now stretched into hours. It is the days right before Bush II invaded Iraq and tensions are high. To add to her worries, Muna’s husband has recently left her for a younger woman. But then she gets some good news. Her application to immigrant to America has been accepted. Her sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) has been in Illinois for 15 years with her doctor husband Nabeel (Yuffuf Abu-Warda) and their two daughters. Things start to look up for Muna and Fadi, who is really excited about moving to America. After all, what kind of future awaits him in Palestine?

But things don’t go as planned in Illinois. Nabeel’s practice is struggling, as he has more and more patients walking out on him because he is Arab. Fadi is made fun of constantly at school, and called things like Saddam and Osama. Despite her two degrees, and years of experience, no one will hire Muna to work in a bank. Instead, she takes a job at White Castle. Too embarrassed to admit the truth, she tells her family she got a good job, and then sneaks over to White Castle day after day.

But if all of this sounds like a rather grim story, the movie is anything but. Despite the hardships she faces, Muna never lets any of them get her down. She has an infectious smile, and tries her hardest to maintain a positive outlook on life. She makes friends with her co-worker Matt (Brodie Sanderson), who also doesn’t fit in, but for him it’s more of a badge of honor than anything else. She even makes friends, that we feel may turn into something more, with Mr. Novatski (Joseph Ziegler), the high school principal who is nice to her, and obviously drawn to her. When he tells her that he’s a Jew, we feel that this may be the end of their friendship, but Amreeka doesn’t play up false dramatics. She likes him both before and after he makes his “confession”.

But as much as I liked parts of Amreeka, I couldn’t help but walk out of the theater thinking that I have seen this movie before – and done better. There has been a lot of talk this year about a crisis in the independent film movement, and I think one of the reasons that there has been is because indie movies have become as formulaic as their mainstream counterparts. Watching Amreeka, I admired the performances (especially by Alia Shawkat, great on Arrested Development and earlier this fall in Whip It, as the teenage girl, who is the most outspoken member of Muna and Fadi’s extended family), but also felt like I could predict what was going to happen at every step of the way. There is nothing really wrong with Amreeka, except for the fact that it is the same movie as many others that I have seen in the last few years. If there is a crisis in the indie film movement, maybe it’s because the filmmakers in it have stopped taking risks.

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