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Amira & Sam | Review

The Misfits: Mullin’s Modest, Yet Conventionally Charming Debut

Sean Mullin Amira & Sam PosterDirector Sean Mullin makes his directorial debut with Amira & Sam, a modest, carefully performed New York love story that unites disparate cultures across a variety of potential incendiary topics, such as racism, classism, and exploited patriotism, to surprisingly gentle effect. The focus here is not so much all the repellant attitudes that sour our daily existences, generally from those who assume the privilege of shared perspectives, but simply a tale of two outsiders inexplicably coming together against the general, low-grade disapproval from both of their cultures.

Relative newcomer Dina Shihabi and Martin Starr provide unprecedented chemistry, navigating the tricky technique flying from open faced hostility to acceptable romance within the impossible parameters of the ninety minute timeframe. Their chemistry remains nicely understated, with an extra dose of melancholy longing wrenched out of their particular set of circumstances. But Mullin’s intentional focus on the titular couple requires that everything else be watered down, to the extent that the film may be warm and cozy, but incredibly familiar.

Sam (Starr) has recently returned to New York after serving several tours in the Middle East. Disconnected and an oddity for having survived military service without suffering irreparable emotional or physical damage, Sam refuses the aid of the VA and struggles to find work on his own. Meanwhile, the outspoken Amira (Dina Shihabi) is a fugitive from Iraq, living illegally with her uncle (Laith Nakli) and selling pirated DVDs on the streets. It turns out her uncle is good friends with Sam because he served as an interpreter, which allowed Sam to do something heroic for her uncle during the line of duty. Sam meets Amira, but she’s incredibly standoffish, vocalizing her disdain for American soldiers, people she blames for the demise of her brother. She’s hardly impressed that Sam is fluent in Arabic. Getting fired from his position as a building security guard, Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), a hedge fund manager, offers him a chance to help him secure commissions from rich Veterans looking for someone they can trust. While Sam is slow to realize that he’s being unduly exploited, he is forced to come to Amira’s aid when she is nearly nabbed by the police.

While these potentially basic and maudline scenarios unfold, Mullin does a great job keeping his scenario low-key. This easily could have been a bombastic scenario gunning for manipulative emotional payoffs, but Mullin presents a slew of provocative scenarios but remains subtle by simply showing us human characters instead of mouthpieces. Martin Starr has appeared in a variety of films and television series but this might be his best, most developed characterization to date. His performance hints at a deep reserve of emotion, something that gets slowly peeled away, shown by his awkward intentions as a stand-up comedian, becoming more relaxed as he allows himself to breathe thanks to the presence of Amira.

Initially abrasive, but not unjustly so, Amira is a more complex character and Shihabi is a warm screen presence, always hinting at the warm personality that keeps getting batted down by the throng of negative energy she has to contend with, whether that is other Islamic women, ignorant Americans, or the dreaded police. The nagging possibility of separation, of course, only swells the film’s romantic potential, and it’s easy to believe the immediacy of their connections and quick emotional attachment when it’s threatened to be wrenched away. Amira’s voicemail to Sam while she’s incapacitated is incredibly heartfelt, and Mullin sails them away into a surprisingly pleasurable finale.

Though the main focus may indeed be Amira and Sam, the rather dull title causes potential confusion for those well versed in recent romantic indie dramas, as the similarly titled 2013 release, Hank and Asha. Otherwise, it’s a pleasantly assured debut.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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