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Basic Formula: Cherien Dabis’s “Amreeka”

Basic Formula: Cherien Dabis's "Amreeka"

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. “Amreeka” opens this Friday.

Palestinian filmmaker Cherien Dabis’s “Amreeka” — Arabic for “America” — uses the basic formula of the classic immigration story and more or less succeeds with it. Shot in the West Bank and Canada, the movie follows a middle-aged Palestinian woman named Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her disgruntled teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) whose plans to resettle in the United States don’t quite go according to plan. Crashing at the suburban home of her sister (Hiam Abbass) in Illinois, Muna winds up broke and takes a dead end job at White Castle, while Fadi deals with rampant anti-Arab racism at the local high school.

Set during the onslaught of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, “Amreeka” mainly works due to its mostly Middle Eastern cast (and “Arrested Development” star Alia Shawkat as Muna’s assimilated niece). The script falters when the situations grow too transparent. It’s especially painful to watch the underwritten roles of the racist teens, whose sentiments appear overly simplistic and lessen the dramatic effect. However, Dabis remains spot-on when focusing on Muna’s vain attempts to interact with other cultures (a provocative parallel between U.S. and Israeli border control stands out), and she avoids an unnecessarily tidy resolution. “Amreeka” ends with good cheer, but a strong dose of ambiguity hovers in the background. “We’re a minority here and a minority there,” Muna concludes, implying that some things will never fully change. [Eric Kohn]

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