Amira & Sam doesn’t try to hide its rom com roots. It’s got the same set-up, all the same tropes that we’re used to: two people looking for more out of life, who don’t get along because of their various circumstances, but end up falling in love against all odds. But while embracing the form, this movie takes a more natural, normalizing approach to the genre. For one thing, romantic comedies are rarely about anyone but well-to-do white folks. Amira (Dina Shihabi), an Iraqi immigrant living in the U.S. illegally, selling DVDs on street corners, and Sam (Martin Starr), a veteran fired from his shitty apartment security job, are not your typical rom com couple. Additionally, those circumstances that keep these two apart are a bit more intense than we’re used to. They don’t hate each other because of their rival businesses (no shade; I love you, You’ve Got Mail!) or because one of them spit grapes on the other’s car window (you too, Harry!). Instead, Amira has a deep hatred for all military, after her brother, a translator for the Army, was killed in the crossfire of an attack. And the political circumstances of their forced proximity (a favorite trope), make it clear that this movie may be romantic, and it may make you laugh, but it is an outlier in its genre.
Amira meets Sam through her uncle, Bassam (Laith Nakli), who served as the translator to Sam’s unit. They both had to flee to the U.S. when life in Iraq became too dangerous, though Amira, after dodging court dates and then getting busted for those bootleg DVDs, suddenly finds herself at serious risk of deportation. Sam offers to let Amira hide out at his apartment, and from that point on, the bond that grows between them is a thing of beauty. The highlight of the movie is the incredible chemistry between these two, the scenes of the two of them just talking and joking. In particular, we essentially watch them fall in love over the course of one tender, playful seven-minute unbroken take. Their rapport has a loose, comfortable feeling, and it’s impossible not to see that these two are perfect for each other. Fans of Martin Starr will no doubt be excited to see him shine in a role that doesn’t fall into any of the archetypal roles we’re used to seeing (and loving!) him in: this is no know-it-all asshole, and definitely no Haverchuck. But as wonderfully raw as Starr is, the real stand-out is Shihabi’s Amira. She is a complex, charmingly acerbic, anti-manic pixie dream girl.
But beyond its brilliant depiction of a beautiful romance, the film has its failings, and quite a few of them. Writer/director Sean Mullin (making his feature debut) has much grander themes in mind here, which would be appreciated if only they were more skillfully handled. For starters, while Amira is (possibly arguably, I suppose) the more interesting character, her story is merely the foundation for Sam’s. Her entire situation is a hint at a criticism of immigration policies, but then gets mostly shuffled away. Similarly, the commentary on public perception (among public assholes, anyway) of a white man in a relationship with a woman wearing a hijab is unavoidable. But Mullin waits until the film is nearly over to finally start that conversation, and by that point it’s too late to not be a rushed, clumsy bumper sticker of a comment.
Instead, Mullin focuses on Sam’s trouble embracing life back in the U.S., with all its capitalist corruption. The film takes place in the summer of 2008, just before the beginning of the financial collapse. Newly fired from his security job, he finds himself suddenly dropped into the world of Wall Street, which sounds contrived, I know, but it works. The dilemma this causes for Sam, caught between wanting big buckets of cash and not wanting to exploit his status as a vet for said cash buckets, is interesting in theory, but too heavy-handed to fit into this particular movie. Though it would be a shame not to mention that that subplot did bring about one truly beautiful scene, between Sam and a Vietnam veteran-turned-potential investor. The two men drinking, sharing secrets and stories, is more in tone with the other half of the movie, the Sam and Amira half. Because where Mullin (and Starr) really shines is in those quiet, intimate one-on-one moments. Those are magical, but beyond that… it gets messy.
Amira & Sam is a bit clumsy. It often feels like three or four different short films spliced together. But at its core, it has sweetness radiating out of it. The chemistry between Starr and Shihabi is unbelievable. Most romantic comedies (or movies of any genre, really) would kill for casts this charming and infectious. And clocking in at only 90 minutes, that may just be enough. Add to that the fact that it’s available on VOD, and you’ve basically got the perfect rainy Sunday movie.
Vivian Kane misses Bill Haverchuck every day.