Amira & Sam Is Neither The Romantic Comedy Nor The Post-War Drama You'd Expect It To Be.

Amira & Sam.
Director: Sean Mullin.
Writer: Sean Mullin.
Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley and Laith Nikli.
Playing At: Alamo Drafthouse (Richardson).

An army veteran trying to acclimate himself back into society again falls in love with an Iraqi immigrant who is on the cusp of potentially being deported. Kinda sounds like the makings of a tragic love story that ends in tears and heartbreak, right?

Well, no, actually. That's not the case with Amira & Sam at all.

Instead, director Sean Mullin, in his first full-length feature, has crafted a rather sweet, smart and funny romantic comedy that doesn't feel like every cliched story we've seen a hundred times.

Credit the interesting dynamics that make up the title characters for that. Sam (Martin Starr) is having trouble fitting back into society after being on a lengthy tour in the army. He doesn't have PTSD or any real disabilities; he's just been gone for so long that coming home provides him a bit of a culture shock. Eventually, he reconnects with one of his old war buddies, Bassam, who is caring for his niece, Amira (Dina Shihabi). She makes her living selling bootleg copies of DVDs from the early 2000s on the streets of New York and, initially, she despises Sam because she doesn't trust soldiers. But as fate would have it, their paths cross when she runs into trouble with the law and Sam offers her a place to lie low for a while.

Starr brings a fun dryness to Sam. He's quick with witty comments and has a quiet confidence about himself. More impressive is Shihabi's Amira. She's absolutely stellar: Her character is tough, smart and fiercely independent. And she can match Sam's dryness and sarcasm. Their back-and-forths are the best parts of the film — in part because they just feel so honest. The fact that it takes a third of the movie before they begin to develop a relationship too feels real. Their chemistry is undeniable. Their bond never feels forced.

Neither do the political elements. With the deportation issue floating above their heads, it would have been easy for the story to become heavy-handed with political rhetoric. Instead, Mullin makes the decision to focus his film on Sam and Amira's relationship and feelings for one another. There are no overly dramatic scenes or diatribes — a refreshing change of pace given the immigration theme.

If anything, this film could have been a bit longer and delved into Amira and Sam's relationship even more. But the writing is strong enough as is, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps for themselves when necessary. For instance? Amira's past is hinted at, but never fully explained. In a lesser film, this might hinder the overall effort. Here, it makes Amira all the more interesting — somewhat of a mystery whose motivations are still unfolding.

And that's the key to this film. Unlike so many other romantic comedies, there are actually some layers to Amira & Sam. Saccharine dialogue and cliched characters are cast aside in favor of solid characters, dry humor and realistic situations. It's a strong first feature for Mullin — and a must-see for anyone who enjoys a romantic stories but hates the ways they're just often told.

Grade: B+.

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