The romantic comedy is a genre that is defined by formula. They’re the kinds of films you can set your watch to, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The number of films overtly subverting the rom-com formula (last year’s clever They Came Together comes to mind) has become so large that it’s nearly it’s own genre. Honestly, self-reflexivity has so become the norm that when films adhere to the standard formula it almost feels quaint. Amira and Sam arrives when films of its kind are a rare breed; it’s a film that plays safely within the genre conventions and still manages to be successful.
Martin Starr (Knocked Up) plays Sam, an army veteran fresh back from Afghanistan struggling to make ends meet. While visiting his old Iraqi interpreter, Sam meets his niece, Amira (Dina Shihabi), an illegal immigrant from Iraq. After being caught selling pirated DVDs, Amira runs from the cops and ends up hiding out at Sam’s apartment. Despite initially wanting nothing to do with him, Amira quickly warms up to Sam. Things get more complicated when Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley, The Vampire Diaries), a morally dubious hedge fund manager hires Sam to rub elbows with wealthy veteran clients. As Sam and Amira grow closer, the two are faced with the looming prospect of her deportation.
Amira and Sam checks off numerous genre staples, but to great effect. The film features an unlikely couple from different worlds, a hate that turns to love relationship, and an external force that threatens to tear them apart. Writer/director Sean Mullin navigates these conventions with grace, using the audience’s familiarity with the format not to parody it, but to enrich the experience. The film feels very timely, and it unfolds in a way that feels organic and believable. The format may be old hat, but the film folds in just enough from today’s headlines that the narrative feels fresh and the characters are delightfully real.
Not everything works. The stakes never ratchet up incredibly high, and a number of characters are introduced for the sole purpose of pushing the plot forward. Much of this stems from the subplot of Sam’s business and personal relationship with Charlie. The storyline provides a number of opportunities for Mullin to discuss the implications of life after war, although some scenes achieve greater levels of grace than others. At one point Charlie gives a monologue about capitalism that feels ripped from a college freshman’s one-act. It’s not a completely sour avenue, but the film’s attempt to intertwine it into Amira and Sam’s relationship narrative never quite works.
Narrative strengths and weaknesses are moot if the performances aren’t strong enough to invest in, and thankfully Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi both turn in great performances. The two have a subtle and undeniable chemistry. Shihabi balances ferocity and naïveté in a performance that’s refreshingly original. Amira is portrayed as a practicing Muslim, but she is never defined by her religion, just as Sam is never defined solely by his time in the military. The film takes care to navigate the complexities of Amira’s place in America as woman straddling Western and Middle Eastern cultures in a way that is both subtle and completely effective. We see the prejudice she experience at the hands of Americans, but we also see a more conservative woman shame Amira for wearing clothes that reveal her shoulders. It’s a subtly complicated portrayal of the struggle of living two cultures at once, and Shihabi pulls it off with grace. Starr gives some of his best work, providing a wry charm that contrasts well with Shihabi’s bouncier disposition. These are people we want to spend time with, and even though things fall into place quite easily, by the end of the film, we root for them.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Amira and Sam does not break any boundaries. It’s a safe film in a lot of ways, but it’s also deceptively complex. It’s a film that manages to speak intelligently about war without really being a film about it. Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi are undeniably charming and do an excellent job carrying the film through its brisk paces. Amira and Sam might not be reinventing the wheel, but it does a pretty good reminding us that sometimes you don’t need to fix what isn’t broken.