Coming to Amreeka
Categories: 2009 Sundance Film Festival
In its basic outline, the movie sounds like a collection of hoary coming-to-America clichés: Upon arriving in suburban Illinois, Muna (the excellent Nisreen Faour) and 16-year-old Fadi (Melka Muallem) move in with Muna's sister, Raghda (The Visitor co-star Hiam Abbas), who herself dreams of returning to her homeland. Raghda's husband, a doctor, has seen one white patient after another take their business elsewhere following 9/11 and the Iraq invasion. And as Muna searches for a job and Fadi enrolls in a public high school, they too encounter the face of anti-Muslim discrimination at every turn. That Muna and Fadi aren't Muslims hardly matters. All that matters is that they look the part.
Like The Visitor, to which it will surely be compared, Dabis' film aspires to show the plight of Arab people living in the U.S. in the Homeland Security era. Only, unlike that film, Amreeka tells its story from the inside-out, without want or need of a white protagonist to serve as the audience's surrogate, and with real three-dimensional characters instead of blunt ideological instruments masquerading as human beings. Although Dabis (who is Palestinian herself) isn't entirely immune from painting in broad strokes -- once again, a white character's first encounter with falafel is deployed as a symbol of East-West bonding -- the details in the film feel lived-in and sincere. Systematically, one form of humiliation is traded for another: no longer subjected to daily searches by West Bank checkpoint guards, Muna instead finds herself flipping burgers at White Castle, while Fadi's classmates accuse him of plotting to blow up the school.
At the heart of Amreeka beats an irresolvable conundrum: that a nation founded by immigrants can be so narrow-mindedly conformist. Yet, given every opportunity for self-pitying ACLU hand-wringing, Dabis keeps the film's tone buoyant and light, making a fine comedy of deception out of Muna's efforts to convince her family she actually works in a bank, and laying the groundwork for a gentle, not-quite romance between Muna and the Jewish principal of Fadi's school. When most filmmakers want to say something important about cultural conflicts, they labor to bring tears to our eyes. Dabis, by contrast, makes us laugh at ourselves and, in turn, each other.