Amira & Sam, the feature writing and directing debut from Sean Mullin, should be an angry, finger-pointing glimpse at America post 9-11. The film is set in 1998 and features frequent Judd Apatow bit player Martin Starr as the titular Sam, an Army vet freshly home from his second tour of duty in Iraq. Sam is an honest and good guy almost to a fault. He harbors no anger towards people who treat him badly and barely bats an eye when his boss is forced to fire him. He has no nightmares, no PTSD and simply wants to get on with his life following his time in the military. That in and of itself is refreshing as we frequently see plot points of that nature easily grafted onto a character who is set to snap and it would have been simple to do this to Sam.
The film catches up with Sam as he tracks down his former platoon translator Bassan (Laith Nakli) who is living with his bitter niece Amira (Dina Shihabi), a sassy Iraqi woman who is prone to making bad decisions. As Sam follows through on a wartime promise he made to Bassan, Amira judges him through eyes tainted by soldiers mistreatment of Iraqi’s yet once again, the film eschews the low hanging fruit and much treaded ground of anger issues arising from the violence of an unjust war and moves quickly forward with its story which as it unspools we see is all about love and compassion.
So, thus far we have a young Iraq war veteran who’s happy and easy going and a street wise, smart-alecky Iraqi woman, all these characters play against both social and cinematic stereotypes. But if everyone’s getting along so well, where’s the conflict? Enter Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), a slightly scuzzy, fast-talking Wall Street guy who manages several hedge funds. Seeing as this is 1998, anyone who pays attention to the news knows Charlie is destined to be one of the guys who rips off America and basically get away with it. Adding insult to injury, Charlie soon realizes that Sam, an affable Army vet could be the perfect bait to grab older investors, particularly veterans or those who recently retired from the military with large sums of cash. He enlists Sam to basically screw over people in the very country he just risked his life to “protect.”
Yet again, Amira & Sam uses these various touchstones as background and ways of establishing character. What the film is really after is showing us two fish out of water falling in love. This is accomplished through very basic, yet somewhat crowded framing and the likeability of Martin Starr who is frankly unrecognizable in the role. Many will remember him as one of the most physically unfortunate young people they’ve ever seen on Freaks and Geeks and more recently as a third tier main character buddy in Knocked Up and Gilfoyle, the odd nerd with the bad attitude in HBO’s Silicon Valley. Here he uses his background in comedy to bring viewers in and make them root for a guy who seems to have no luck at all.
Mullin keeps the shots simple although he’s certainly not shy of the long take. One scene, in which Amira and Sam flirt cautiously is done in one take with the onscreen action so seamless and natural, it’s easy to miss the fact there’s no cuts.
As the film progresses a fairly obvious turn of events transpires. Sam is constantly tested as a man and a soldier and this, coupled with his rising attraction to the forbidden Amira pulls viewers in. It’s a shame this film isn’t getting more attention and their distributor, Drafthouse Films is doing its best. But if you’re a fan of rom-com’s and want to see one done in a new, refreshing way, look no further than Amira & Sam.
— Don R. Lewis