Well, here’s a thoroughly unexpected concept for a movie: a romantic comedy cast in the shadow of America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. On paper, Sean Mullin’s Amira & Sam sounds like a dicey prospect, but in practice, the marriage between its lighthearted mode and the United States’ contentious overseas campaigns works beautifully. Mullin’s film has brains to match its heart, which is several sizes larger than you can possibly imagine just by reading a simple review. War films tend to take on varied guises, and the cinema spawned from our Middle Eastern engagements is no exception, yet Amira & Sam is itself altogether exceptional.
The film begins by introducing us to the latter half of its titular duo, Sam (Martin Starr), a marine recently returned home from military tours abroad. Next comes Amira (Dina Shihabi), a young Iraqi-born woman who spends her days hocking bootleg DVDs on New York City’s streets. Though they hail from entirely different walks of life, they share a common link in Bassam (Laith Nakli), Amira’s uncle, who happens to have served as the translator in Sam’s unit. Mullin isn’t one to waste time, and he reunites the two men in the film’s opening minutes. For viewers caught unawares, the moment may result in tears shed, though be warned that they’ll just be the first of many. Amira & Sam is many things—funny, sweet, insightful, occasionally bitter—but it’s best defined by its displays of warmth.
Yet there’s a problem as Sam and Bassam bask in their homecoming, and it’s Amira. She neither likes nor trusts soldiers, which complicates the situation immediately; matters grow pricklier when she’s faced with the threat of deportation after a run-in with the police. Bassam is out of town on work, and thus must impose on Sam to give his niece shelter. If you’ve ever seen a rom-com, this would be the odd couple’s meet-cute; you can probably guess where the film goes next with relative accuracy.
But that’s sort of, part of, Amira & Sam’s point. Mullin has an obvious soft spot for the category; Amira keeps copies of 27 Dresses and Bridget Jones’ Diary among her wares, and the final act broadly acknowledges fictionalized love’s inability to measure up to the real thing. Mullin knows his rom-coms, and he knows them well: what makes them tick and why, and how best to tune them for maximum effect. There’s a self-aware wryness running through portions of Amira & Sam, but by recognizing the genre’s indulgences Mullin leaves just enough room to use them himself. The film flirts with fantasy, but that fantasy is laid atop a foundation of realism and experience. Figment or no, it works.
Mullin, who served in the United States armed forces before turning toward a career in filmmaking, is a key ingredient in Amira & Sam’s success; when the script offers commentary on America’s treatment of its veterans, we can sense the director’s disdain on the other side of the lens. Unlike an American Sniper or a The Hurt Locker, Amira & Sam isn’t about how the war has changed Sam. Instead, it’s about how the war has changed his countrymen. Nobody gives a shit about the rules anymore, whether it’s Charlie (Paul Wesley), Sam’s Wall Street shark of a cousin, or the desk worker at the VA who tries to persuade Sam to take disability pay. People either see our troops as walking medical claims or as commodities, and Mullin captures that dynamic with an almost sardonic gaze.
The other part of Amira & Sam’s success is its leads, both of whom are spectacular in their own ways. Those of us who have watched Starr grow from his Freaks and Geeks days to now may be taken aback at how damn charming he is here; it’s the kind of shockingly human performance that will invariably draw such bromides as “Martin Starr as you’ve never seen him before,” but this is frankly a case where the cliché passes muster. Shihabi, meanwhile, cuts a figure of reserved radiance through the film as she warms up to Sam and their initially testy relationship evolves into friendship—and then into something more. They take solace in each other’s company, carving their own paths, together, through ignorance and ambivalence alike. If anyone deserves a far-fetched happy ending, it’s them.
Director: Sean Mullin
Writer: Sean Mullin
Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche
Release Date: Jan. 30, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.