Amreeka (National Geographic, PG-13)

amreeka-header.jpgAmreeka stands out because of its superior execution and excellent cast more than any novelty in the story itself.





Hiam Abbass and Nisreen Faour as sisters Raghda and Muna in AMREEKA from National Geographic Entertainment. A film by Cherien Dabis.


Sometimes it takes an outsider to show you your own world. Case in point: Amreeka, the confident first feature from Cherien Dabis, who based the story on her experiences as a Palestinian-Jordanian growing up in small-town Ohio.

Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour) and her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) live a middle-class life in Ramallah where she works as a bank manager while he attends prep school. But Muna worries about Fadi’s future in the face of ever-increasing harassment from the Israeli occupiers and when she wins a green card lottery they make the difficult decision to leave their extended family behind and emigrate to the United States ("Amreeka" is the Arabic word for "America").

Muna and Fadi move in with her sister Raghda Halaby (Hiam Abbass) and her family in a small town about 90 minutes from Chicago. It makes for a crowded household and tensions are exacerbated by financial worries: Muna’s life savings were seized at the airport while Raghda’s physician husband is losing patients due to his Arab ethnicity.

Life in Illinois turns out to be a series of good news/bad news jokes for Muna and Fadi. Good news: you’re in America. Bad news: the U.S. just invaded Iraq and most of your American neighbors can’t tell one Arab from another. Good news: Muna finds a job. Bad news: it’s at White Castle. Good news: Fadi already has enough credits to enter college. Bad news: he’s enrolled at the local high school where he sits in classes with complacent American kids and clueless teachers who have lots of opinions but very little information about life outside their narrow worlds.

Like generations of immigrants before them, Muna and Fadi suck it up and learn to negotiate the strange new world in which they find themselves. This story has been told on film many times before: Amreeka stands out because of its superior execution and excellent cast more than any novelty in the story itself.

Dabis wisely keeps her film firmly grounded in the personal and specific, avoiding diatribes about world politics by focusing on the experiences of one family which she makes us care about. And her outsider’s eye really nailed the milieu of the small-town Midwest (despite the film being shot in Winnipeg) as well as the ecosystem of a comprehensive American high school.

Amreeka is also buoyed by an excellent cast, the result of months of casting calls on three continents. Nisreen Faour, who has extensive experience as a stage actress, perfectly captures the optimism and kindness of Muna as well as the sadness of her life. She retains a kind of innocence which could easily be mocked but Faour grounds it in Muna’s openness to life and determination to make the best of any situation. Hiam Abbass, with many film credits including a supporting role in The Visitor and the lead in The Lemon Tree, manages in a smaller role as Muna’s sister Raghda to express the bone-deep weariness of a woman who’s not sure she and her family will ever be welcome in this world.

Melkar Muallem, in his film debut as Fadi, catches the premature wisdom and teenage impulsiveness which co-exist in his character along with his fierce loyalty to his family. Alia Shawkat, well-known from American television series including State of Grace and Arrested Development, provides a strong counterpart as his more Americanized cousin. Joseph Ziegler, also primarily a television actor, brings a quiet humanity to a small role as the principal of the local high school.

Amreeka was the opening night selection of the New Directors/New Films series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and arrives in St. Louis with many honors, including the FIPRESCI Prize from the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. It premiered locally at the Saint Louis International Film Festival, but if you missed it there you can still catch it at the Landmark Cinema at Plaza Frontenac. | Sarah Boslaugh


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