While both sides of the political spectrum are debating immigration reform and American Sniper, Amira & Sam has come along as a unique paradigm-shifting romantic comedy tackling both issues. Written and directed by former Army Officer turned stand-up comedian Sean Mullin, Amira & Sam stars Martin Starr as a Iraq War vet and his unlikely love interest, Iraqi immigrant Amira (Dina Shihabi). Stuck in a sort of geopolitical limbo, Amira sells DVDs on Canal Street until she’s forced into hiding after an encounter with the NYPD. Her uncle Bassam (Laith Nakli), formerly the translator for Sam’s unit, has immigrated to the New York and works as a truck driver.
Sam has recently fallen on hard times; embodying the totality of his experience, if Sam may be quietly suffering he’s doing so in a passive aggressive way. Early in the film he locks a group of drunken douche-bros in an elevator after one pisses in a vestibule and refuses to apologize. Starr, a minor character actor whose previously co-starred in some excellent comedies of the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen/Greg Mottola variety, brings an excellent warmth, humanity and subtly to Sam, traits rare in any romantic comedy.
While visiting his local VA administrator, a well-meaning if disordered woman (played by Meg Gibson), for a copy of his medical records, he’s encouraged to apply for disability. Confused, he continues to fight against the PTSD stereotype. He may be a lot of things, but he is certainly not disabled. Attempting to channel his energy into comedy he fails, although his cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), a hedge fund manager, sees his natural charm and offers him a sales position provided he can close clients with military backgrounds.
Sam is sent into discuss business with Jack, a Vietnam vet played by David Rasche, and in one of the film’s strongest sequences they share a candid and frank conversation about their experiences which escalates in a rather unique and retained way. Mullin knows the territory well and is out to circumvent the familiar. Sam truly is one of the good guys; having done a hard job his moral compass remains intact and he resists becoming a pawn for Charlie.
Shihabi’s Amira, whom ultimately becomes Sam’s love interest, is exceptionally well-developed, sharing her experiences with Sam. Despite her modest appearance (although she does wear an absurdly revealing outfit later in the film that should have been explained), Amira embodies a unique life experience: simultaneously on the run and detached, she reveals a rebellious streak despite her reserved nature.
Amira & Sam, a rare American romantic comedy with both a brain and a heart, is a special film despite some elements that don’t quite work out, including one scene that you’ve seen in a million romantic comedies before it overstays its welcome. What it knows well, it does well. Both Sam and Amira are likable, engaging, and complex people; credit is due to Starr and Shihabi who have real chemistry together. A kind of counter-narrative, free from partisan political commentary, Amira & Sam takes the smart high ground: like the L’Auberge Espagnole trilogy, this is film about real people, stuck in a geopolitical circumstances that are either funny or tragic.
Amira & Sam is now available on VOD and in limited release.