“While you finish viewing Amira & Sam leaving satisfied for the experience and maybe even smiling, the real trick that Mullin, Starr, and Shihabi pull off is burrowing its messages of lostness, solitude, and alienation into your psyche, leaving you to mull on them for days later.”
Amira & Sam
Release date: January 30, 2015
Director: Sean Mullin
Stars: Martin Starr, Dina Shahibi
Running time: 87 minutes
MPAA rating: Not rated
On my morning commute yesterday, my local NPR station was reporting on the transitions that United States soldiers face upon returning home from combat. Earlier last week, the same station recounted the tale of former Iraqi citizens acclimatizing to life in the U.S. Both stories mirrored one another in that they echoed a discordance that both groups sometimes felt upon entering the country, either for the first time or for a return stay. While some movies depicting this unease, either felt from soldiers or from immigrants to the nation, tend to bludgeon audiences over the head of the message of transitioning and belonging, director Sean Mullin crafts a movie in Amira & Sam that’s both subtlety and elegantly done, while at the same time managing to tell a love story that feels organic and not a zany “opposites attract” narrative.
Sam (Martin Starr, Freaks and Geeks, Community) is a soldier who has returned home to a country he no longer recognizes. While he’s relatively well-adjusted despite his time at war—Mullin, a veteran, has gone on record that he wanted to flip the movie trope of using PTSD in war films on its head—Sam doesn’t feel like he fits into the country he left so many months ago. That might account for his initial attraction to Amira, the niece of his old Iraqi translator from his time overseas. While Sam is adjusting to his post-war life, the job and apartment he finds himself in casts shades of grey to an already slow process of reacclimation. Sam finds life shaken up, however, when he has to hide Amira in his apartment after she runs afoul of the law. Amira, an illegal immigrant, has to put her safety in Sam’s hands, a man whom she initially distrusts and is somewhat belligerent to due to their respective ties to Iraq. Sam’s problems escalate in the form of an ethical quagmire that might yield him a better job, but might make Sam feel morally dirty. It’s through these struggles that Sam and Amira’s bond begins to form into something more.
A lot of the charm and truth of the film comes from how Amira and Sam both view the United States as their home. Amira has become entranced with American popular culture, voraciously watching the bootleg movie DVDs she peddles on the street. However, she has a sweet savviness to her, as she is aware that the U.S. of the movies does not always line up with the one of the real world. This parallels Sam’s readjustment to life in the country post-combat, as he views the nation he left as a cracked mirror reflection of the one to which he is returning. These characters’ abilities to hold two diametrically-opposed yet connected views of the United States might account for the two slowly warming up to one another.
While you can pretty much surmise that the movie is also a love tale—there is, after all, an ampersand connecting Amira and Sam in the title—the story comes across as incredibly organic, despite the multiple narrative threads weaving in and out of the movie. We believe that there’s a necessary reason behind Amira’s initial animosity toward Sam, as she lost a brother to U.S. forces. Despite Sam’s congeniality and good-natured spirit, it makes sense that Amira would be wary of her newfound protector. This isn’t an oil-and-water situation of mismatched personalities, like Sam and Diane on Cheers (a Cheers reference; I’m old). This is a case of real, unresolved emotions making a character reticent to open up to a man who reminds her of trauma she’s experienced. Mullin’s direction and Starr and Shihabi’s performances never make that interaction feel ham-fisted, however, letting the duo’s relationship unfold naturally, bumps in the road and all.
While you finish viewing Amira & Sam leaving satisfied for the experience and maybe even smiling, the real trick that Mullin, Starr, and Shihabi pull off is burrowing its messages of lostness, solitude, and alienation into your psyche, leaving you to mull on them for days later.