Amreeka is a film about the beauty and the pains of the Arab experience in a post-September 11 world. The film, Palestinian-American filmmaker Cherien Dabis' debut effort, is a strict by-the-numbers drama about a Palestinian immigrant moving to a still emotionally raw post-9/11 Chicago suburb, alternating between middling melodrama and good-natured comedy.
After winning the United States green card lottery, Muna (Nisreen Faour) takes her child Fadi (Melkar Muallem) to America to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Raghda (Hiam Abbass) and Nabeel (Yussuf Abu-Warda). The nationalization process is a rough one for the two -- the Iraq War is beginning and Americans are still touchy from 9/11 -- and a lack of good jobs forces Muna to work at White Castle. Although the family are Christians, they are still ostracized, threatened and slurred because of their Arabic heritage
The film's best moments are when it uses a light touch, but it suffers when it sinks into melodrama. It treads the same familiar ground as most immigrant stories -- Fadi gets into drugs, fights at school and yearns to return to the country that understood him. Muna is unable to find a job, so she secretly works at White Castle while bragging about her job at a small bank to hide her humiliation.
Faour's work as Muna is the true hallmark of the film. She plays the character with a wide-eyed, caring innocence. Her indefatigable spirit gets sent to the brink numerous times, yet at every turn she somehow remains upbeat.
When she becomes melancholic at her burger flipping job, she teaches her misanthropic teen co-worker Matt (Brodie Sanderson) Arabic words. When asked her occupation back in Palestine, she remarks that "yes, Palestine has been occupied for 40 years," one of the more amusing little bits of confusion that she smiles through earnestly.
The problems that Arabs experienced every day in post 9/11 America are handled surprisingly deftly. Dabis has explained that this film speaks to her experience as a Palestinian Arab growing up in Ohio during the first Gulf War, with Muna being a stand in for her aunt who had emigrated during the conflict.
Alia Shawkat's (Arrested Development) character, Salma, doubly shows the anger that Arab-Americans feel when they see these conflicts and also the sometimes tricky situations they can get themselves into because of their Americanization: both passionately defending her figurative brothers and sisters back in Palestine while looking helplessly from the sidelines at the injustices they see.
Dabis, best known as a writer for Showtime's The L Word, is a graduate of Columbia film school. Surprisingly, then, this film is not a technical marvel by any stretch of the imagination. The camera is handheld, with little in the way of grand movements. Even the scenery is dull and grey. The Chicago suburb -- actually shot in Winnipeg -- is cold and lifeless in comparison to the earthy vibrance of Palestine.
While Amreeka isn't offering anything new or surprising, it does offer a relatively light-hearted affair showing the tremendous pain that "evil Arabs" experienced in post-9/11 America. While the melodrama, especially any plot lines considering the son, can be aggravating, it's still worth it every step of the way.