I wonder what it means that most every review I’ve read of Amreeka , a film that premiered at Sundance and opens in L.A. and New York tonight, uses the word “gentle.” I guess we expect a film tracking the Arab experience in the United States not to be at all gentle, so it comes as a surprise that Cherien Dabis’ debut feature, about a single mother who brings her son from Palestine to the United States in 2003, chooses comedy over condemnation. Dabis seems as interested in the curious, comic openness of Midwesterners as she does in the rubes who think every Arab is a Saddam sympathizer. Muna, played by the adorable Nisreen Faour, is the likable lead whose good-natured confusion drives the film’s comic moments. “Occupation?” an officer at the border asks Muna on her way into the United States from Palestine. “Yes, it is occupied. For 40 years!” she responds.
But Dabis seems not to know what to do with darkness, so when Muna’s teenage son ends up in jail for responding violently to some insults hurled at his mother, we’re left with some cringe-worthy, after-school-special level dialogue. Dabis is never condescending toward the adults in her screenplay, but assumes the adults in her audience need major narrative signposting (Moral here! Resolution this way!). As an object lesson for tweens on the necessity of not calling their classmates terrorists, on the other hand, Amreeka functions perfectly well. So take the kids, but don’t expect a subtle cinematic experience.
Image is a screenshot from the Amreeka trailer.