by George Sax
The American Experience
The problems for Muna and Fadi Farah really begin at the immigration counter in O’Hare airport, although they don’t know that yet. All too soon this Palestinian mother and son’s dreams of a new life of political freedom and spacious opportunities begin to evaporate.
As Cherien Dabis’ heartfelt but sentimental film begins, Muna (Nisreen Faour) and 16-year-old Fadi (Melkar Muallem) are living under the petty burdens and severe restrictions of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank when, out of the blue, there arrives an official approval for emigration to the United States, a belated response to an application Muna has since forgotten about. Her unfaithful husband has abandoned wife and son, and she’s begun to worry about Fadi’s future, particularly when he’s hassled and intimidated by Israeli soldiers at a military checkpoint. At Fadi’s urging, they leave for the Illinois plains to join her sister (Hiam Abbass, from last year’s The Visitor) and brother-in-law (Yusseff Abu Warda). And there, a new series of challenges and troubles besets them.
These may come as unpleasant surprises to Muna and Fadi, but they’re probably going to seem a little generic to many moviegoers. This pair face economic uncertainty and hardship and intergenerational conflict in response to a new culture, as have many generations of newcomers to these shores. And they’re also confronted with a harshly impulsive prejudice specific to their background. It’s winter of 2003, the invasion of Iraq is beginning, and even non-Muslim Arabs are suspected in this small plains town. (Curiously, the film never tells us just what faith the Farahs belong to.)
None of these trials is negligible, but Amreeka (Arabic for America) deals with them in a manner that never seems quite authentic, and sometimes comes off as warmly amusing. Dabis is herself a Palestinian-American and she must have intended her film to reflect actual experiences of Arabs in the States, but too often Amreeka comes across as exaggerated, mechanical, or insubstantial. The film’s tone wavers between light observation and the melodramatic, before it reaches for a resolution that might be more appropriate in a real family comedy.
The fine work of the cast provides some cohesion, and Dabis’ ability to capture small details and events in family relations are in evidence. Amreeka conveys sincerity and goodwill, even if it never becomes very persuasive.
Watch the trailer for Amreeka
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