An ever-optimistic Palestinian single mom and her teenage son arrive in small town Illinois, intent on starting a new life. Do they have what it takes to successfully occupy the heartland?
Writer-director Cherien Dabis’ debut feature is a welcome addition to the fish-out-of-water, immigrants-in-America genre, following The Visitor and Maria Full of Grace.
The gentle, low-key drama laced with droll humour deftly deals with issues such as cultural identity, family ties, prejudice and intolerance. Amreeka (the Arabic word for America) is based loosely on the experiences of Dabis, who was born in Nebraska to Palestinian/Jordanian parents and felt growing up that she was never American enough for the Americans or sufficiently Arab for the Arabs. During the Persian Gulf war, her family faced a similar kind of racism and persecution as portrayed here.
Set in 2003 during the US invasion of Iraq, the film focuses on a Palestinian single mother who emigrates with her teenage son to the US, leaving behind her demanding mother, a good job in a bank and being hassled by Israeli soldiers on the daily commute from Bethlehem. Muna (the earthy Nisreen Faour) and her 16-year-old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem), face huge adjustments when they move to a town in rural Illinois.
While they’re warmly welcomed by their hosts, Muna’s sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass, who was wonderful in The Visitor and in Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree), her doctor husband Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda) and their three Americanized daughters, it was a volatile time for Arab/Americans in the US. Nabeel loses most of his patients, putting financial pressure on the family, while ignorant, racist kids at school taunt Fadi as 'Osama."
Desperately short of money after she loses her meagre savings, Muna applies for jobs in banks and is knocked back. She’s forced to take a menial position flipping hamburgers in a fast food joint, but, trying to save face, pretends to her family that she’s working in a nearby bank.
Tensions rise between Raghda and her husband, and after an incident involving Fadi and the school bully, the cops are called in. There are numerous comedic moments, as when Fadi is advised he can’t wear pleated trousers because they’d make him look 'F.O.B." (fresh off the boat); glancing at a supermarket tabloid, Muna asks her sister, 'What does adopting an orangutan love child mean?"; the pudgy Muna tries without much luck to lose weight; and a roadside sign with missing letters urges 'Support our oops."
The film’s tone is ultimately uplifting as Muna finds kindness, and maybe romance, in Fadi’s headmaster, (Joseph Ziegler) who, as a divorced Polish Jew, can understand how it feels to be regarded as an alien.
Dabis infuses her film with a lot of heart and energy, and coaxes superb performances from her cast, especially Faour as the spirited, resilient Muna and Abbass as a woman whose loyalties to her husband and sister are sorely tested.
Often using handheld cameras, the director puts the viewer up close and personal with her characters: there’s a lot to like about them and this film, which took home the coveted FIPRESCI critics prize at the Directors' Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes International Film Festival in May.