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There is something tantalizing about falling in love with someone from another country, someone whose mind has yet to be saturated by our American bullshit. How fun it must be to meet someone who doesn’t care about our TV shows, our vanity, our arrogance, or the Super Bowl.

I thought about this while watching Sean Mullin’s amira & sam, a lovely, occasionally transcendent little romance about a former Green Beret who is back in America and falling for an Iraqi woman. He’s Sam, a decent, serious-minded man who is slowly adjusting to life in America. We first see him working as a security guard in a Manhattan high rise, where he stoically abides a dreary, unforgiving shift. From there, he becomes a reluctant partner at his cousin’s hedge fund firm. 

They pull off some of the best movie flirting in years, partly because Sam is shy, and Amira is suspicious. But they are both smart, funny people, and we know they are meant to be together.

Sam’s cousin wants him around to attract former military men as investors. Sam also wants to try stand-up comedy – he has a sense of humor, but the one time we see him at an open mike night he bombs terribly. In a way, he’s too smart for the audience, and too smart for his own jokes. Martin Starr, a former member of the Freaks & Geeks cast who has made a career out of playing misanthropic nerds and techies, plays Sam. He’s very fine as Sam, walking a fine line between pathos and anger. He’s at his best when he’s poking fun at Amira, a young Iraqi woman he’s looking after as a favor for an old army buddy. She hates him at first, for she hates all soldiers, but gradually they warm up to each other. They pull off some of the best movie flirting in years, partly because Sam is shy, and Amira is suspicious. But they are both smart, funny people, and we know they are meant to be together.

Mullin creates a secondary plot where Sam’s Wall Street cousin turns out to be a fishy character, and Sam goes through guilt at taking part in his cousin’s shady business plans. This is where the casting gets odd, for while Sam looks like a working class mensch, he apparently comes from a privileged background of WASP snobs. This allows Mullin to set up some easy conflicts, for the snobby family makes dumb cracks about Sam’s new Iraqi girlfriend, which sets up a big fight scene, and the ultimate event that sets in motion Amira’s deportation. Amira, an undocumented immigrant, was already in trouble for resisting arrest when a cop pulled her in for selling DVD bootlegs in Times Square.

Starr feels like a new discovery, even though he’s been around for years. Dina Shihabi, as Amira, is as beautiful as a clear sky, and has a scrappy personality that makes her even more endearing. I wouldn’t mind a sequel to this movie, just to see more of Amira and Sam. Mullin’s ambition to make a multi-layered film backfired, for the plot about Wall Street may have provided Starr with some good scenes, but got in the way of Amira and Sam’s romance. I loved how they sit under the Brooklyn bridge, aping the famous tableau from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But instead of arguing about classical composers and novelists, they banter about the merits of Facebook. New York has changed since Woody’s prime. In this film, wealthy people urinate on the sidewalk and treat security guards shabbily. The city is still standing, but the magic gone. For that reason, I’m glad Amira and Sam found each other.

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AWARDS / NOTABLES
  • Amira and Sam was nominated as Best Newcomer at Sundance 2021
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