Nisreen Faour and Melkar Muallem, in 'Amreeka'

Dir. Cherien Dabis
(2009, PG-13, 96 min)
★ ★ ½

Amreeka is a pleasant, well-meaning film I wish were more than that. Starting out with a Palestinian mother and son living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, it suggests a pointed drama about everyday life for Palestinians without a homeland. Upon arriving in the United States for the first time, the mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour), is asked by an impatient customs agent about her citizenship, but she doesn’t have any citizenship, because she doesn’t belong to a country. “Occupation?” he asks. “Yes, we’ve been occupied for the last forty years.”

But when the action moves to America, it becomes a more simplistic fish-out-of-water melodrama with its characters depicted as broad types. Muna struggles with language and employment in a bumbling manner that borders on a sitcom. Her son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), has a conventional teenage rebellion: getting into fights, smoking pot, staying out late. He doesn’t get along with the white kids in his new Illinois school, but even the film’s racists feel safe and non-threatening in their PG-13 bigotry: calling him Osama and writing “Al Kada” [sic] on the back of his car. Fadi’s principal is a kindly Jewish man who finds common ground with Muna; we really can all just get along.

Writer-director Cherien Dabis sets the story in 2003, at the start of the Second Iraq War, giving her the opportunity to make some self-conscious political statements about American foreign policy; a shot of a sign with missing letters in front of a White Castle is a little on-the-nose, but makes up for it by providing the film’s biggest laugh.

I think Amreeka might be ideal for young teens, or even pre-teens, as a primer on Middle East politics, immigration, and xenophobia. Adults, however, will likely wish for a comedy with more bite or a drama with more nuance.

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