2009 Sundance alum “Amreeka” hits theaters Friday with a distribution deal from National Geographic Films. The film, by Palestinian Columbia-educated director Cherien Dabis, tells the story of a Palestinian family, mother and son, who must immigrate to Illinois to live with the mother’s sister. In the United States, the teenage boy, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), comes of age in an American public high school while the mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour), must support herself through a job at White Castle.
Entertainment Weekly‘s Lisa Schwarzbaum is elegant in her statement of faith in the new director, “‘Amreeka’ is strategically inviting and carefully mild even when making unsubtle points about Palestinian suffering and American insensitivity. Dramatic conflicts resolve, in the end, with the telltale brightness of a script that’s been through the Sundance Lab’s rinse cycle. But the good humor, generosity, and love Dabis bestows on her characters in this assured first feature are uniquely hers — the mark of a talent to watch.”
The cultural exchange depicted in the film provides some of the film’s strongest moments and some of its more overwrought scenes. Describing Muna’s work at White Castle, Variety‘s Rob Nelson says, “As much as the first “Harold and Kumar” movie, “Amreeka” serves the fast-food chain’s bottom line even as it pokes mild fun at greasy sliders, which Muna at one point hilariously replaces with fresh falafel burgers to the delight of her blue-haired young co-worker.” Referring to the teenagers that tease both of the new immigrants, Eric Kohn on indieWIRE complains, “It’s especially painful to watch the underwritten roles of the racist teens, whose sentiments appear overly simplistic and lessen the dramatic effect.”
Ed Gonzalez, in Slate critiques the film’s didactic approach to her subject, “Allegorical import is effusively shoehorned into nearly every scene, so a minute doesn’t go by where the audience isn’t being lectured to about the hurt of racism, the absurdities of assimilation, the perpetual sense of displacement felt by Palestinians, and the contributions Arabs have made to popular culture.” Stephen Garrett, in his Time Out New York review pronounces the film D.O.A., “If the story were more arresting, and the filmmaking more original, then the notions of post-9/11 assimilation might be more compelling. As it stands, the movie just serves up another warmed-over Ellis Island rehash.”
Kirk Honeycutt, in his Hollywood Reporter Sundance review, predicts the film’s place in the market. “[It obviously will have an uphill struggle in theatrical distribution. Critical acclaim and fest honors could pave the way for it to become a modest indie hit. If nothing else, Dabis, in her first feature, gets immediately added to that impressive list of Sundance discoveries.”