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Amira & Sam

D: Sean Mullin / 90m

Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley, Laith Nakli, David Rasche, Ross Marquand, Taylor Wilcox

Former Green Beret Sam (Starr), fresh out of the army, visits an old friend, Bassam (Nakli), who was an interpreter during Sam’s time in Iraq. He is there to repay a debt, and in the process he meets Bassam’s niece, Amira (Shihabi). However, she is rude and unwelcoming to him as her brother was also an interpreter, and he was killed by friendly fire.

Having lost his job, Sam visits his cousin Charlie (Wesley) for help. Charlie is a hedge fund manager, and Sam’s visit prompts him to ask Sam to help him land a potential investor he’s had trouble convincing to come on board. In exchange for Sam’s help, Charlie agrees to pay him $50,000; he also gives him the keys to his father’s boat, which Charlie has inherited but doesn’t use. Glad of the support, Sam agrees to help out. Meanwhile, Amira is stopped by a police officer while selling fake DVDs on the street; a check on her I.D. reveals she is in the country illegally. She runs away from the police officer and heads back to her uncle’s. Stuck with a job that requires him to be away for a few days, he contacts Sam and asks him to look after Amira until he gets back.

Sam agrees but Amira is less than happy about everything. She reluctantly allows Sam to take her to his apartment. He meets Charlie’s prospective investor, a Vietnam veteran called Jack (Rasche), and impresses him so much that Jack increases his investment beyond what Charlie was expecting. Feeling good about things, Sam takes Amira out on the boat and their relationship thaws as a result. Soon after, Charlie invites Sam to his engagement party, but asks him if he can wear his Army dress uniform; Sam agrees though he’s a little reluctant. He takes Amira with him but some of Charlie’s colleagues prove too aggressively racist toward her and an altercation ensues, during which Amira accidentally hits Charlie’s fiancé, Claire (Wilcox). She presses charges and Amira is arrested. As a result, she has only twenty-four hours before she’ll be deported back to Iraq – and there’s nothing Sam or Bassam can do…

Amira & Sam - scene

An unusual mix of interracial romance and army veteran adjusting to “normal” life dramatics, Amira & Sam is an absorbing combination of sub-genres that overcomes a somewhat staid, foreseeable approach to Sam’s troubles with his cousin, and scores heavily when portraying Amira and Sam’s growing relationship. It doesn’t try to be clever, but it does get its points across with a winning charm, and thanks to the well thought out script by writer/director Mullin, and the performances of the two leads, is a pleasure to watch.

There’s plenty to enjoy, from Sam’s horrible attempt at doing a stand up gig, to his letting Amira steer the boat (and then jumping overboard), to the awkward conversation he has with Jack about the realities of post-Army life. The movie is peppered with scenes that work because of the care and attention given to the characters, with even Charlie’s duplicitous nature proving less stereotypical than expected. And Mullin shows a complete command of the material, keeping it grounded and realistic, letting the narrative unfold at a steady, convincing pace, and placing the emotional lives of Amira and Sam at the forefront.

As the “unlikely” couple, Starr and Shihabi display a definite chemistry, their scenes together evincing a surety and a confidence that not only makes their relationship all the more credible, but all the more engaging as well. As these two very different people discover a common ground and develop their feelings for each other they become a couple for whom the word “cute” seems entirely appropriate. Mullin captures the first flush of romance with ease, and in the hands of his leads, that burgeoning romance is handled with aplomb. Starr has had a varied career in front of the camera, mostly as a supporting actor, but here he takes on his first lead role and shows a range and a capability that should have been exploited a long time ago. His deadpan looks and unhurried style suits Sam perfectly, making him feel like someone we might know in our own lives. Shihabi is equally as good, investing Amira with a tenacious yet sensitive quality that proves a match for Starr’s interpretation of Sam, and which makes their romance all the more credible. The bond they develop, and their need for each other, is never in doubt.

Less effective are the scenes designed to add some secondary drama to the proceedings, such as Charlie’s investigation by the SEC which feels entirely predictable, and the racial outbursts at the engagement party, which have been a longtime coming and which feel like the movie is ticking a box. And yet the idea of Sam being exploited by Charlie, of his Army veteran status being used to win over investors, is dealt with succinctly and the point is made with a minimum of fuss or attention. Likewise, the notion that Sam can be a funny guy in front of an audience when he’s clearly more of a storyteller, a feature of his personality that is explored casually but with a great deal of efficiency, is also a plus. Mullin proves how capable and subtle he can be in these scenes, and again, is helped immeasurably by his cast.

With a pleasing visual approach courtesy of DoP Daniel Vecchione, linked to Julian Robinson’s astute editing, the movie looks good and has a bright shine to it that reflects and enhances the romantic aspects while never downplaying the reality of Amira’s predicament or Sam’s need to “assimilate” back into society. It’s an enjoyable movie from start to finish, confidently assembled and memorable enough to warrant a second or third viewing.

Rating: 8/10 – surprising in places and yet overly familiar in others, Amira & Sam is a confident mix of comedy, drama and romance that features two first class lead performances; any flaws the movie may have are more than compensated for by the sheer goodwill the movie generates throughout.