AMIRA & SAM: A Natural, Organic, Non-Traditional Romantic Comedy

Amira & Sam opens in U.S theaters January 30, 2015.

I’m so glad to note the trend of thoughtful, intelligent, delightful movies, of which Amira & Sam is one. Set in July 2008, which is, you will recall, just before the bottom fell out on the economy, Amira & Sam follows the exploits of newly-returned war veteran Sam (Martin Starr, Party Down). Working as a security guard and watching other people live their lives, Sam’s own life becomes more complicated after meeting Amira (newcomer Dina Shihabi), the soldier-hating niece of his translator friend Bassam (Laith Nakli). At the same time, Sam’s wealthy Wall Street cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley, The Vampire Diaries) enlists Sam to help him attract an ex-military investor (David Rasche, Bored to Death) to his hedge fund. Amira & Sam is many things — a comedy, a romance, a critique — but perhaps director Sean Mullin put it best: it’s a look at what happens when a vet comes home and is fine, but discovers the country has PTSD.

I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Amira & Sam at Forever Fest in Austin in November, with Mullin, Starr, Shihabi, and Wesley in attendance. With a background in shorts, Amira & Sam is Mullin’s feature debut as a director, and it’s obviously a very personal story for him. Like Sam, Mullin is an ex-military man who tried his hand at standup comedy and rubbed elbows with Wall Streeters, and he puts a lot of himself into Sam. “Seeing America go through PTSD after 9/11, a lot of how I felt is how Sam felt,” said Mullin. Perhaps those feelings are reflected in the script, when Rasche’s character Jack points out that the idealism of post-9/11 America didn’t last. “America has become this cesspool of self-interest,” he says. Will Sam buy in to the new America, or opt out?

Enter Amira, a world-weary small-time hustler who runs afoul of the law for selling pirated DVDs. Amira is a misfit who wears a hijab with skin showing and the hates the military ever since her translator brother was accidently killed by crossfire from U.S. soldiers. On the run from police while her uncle is out of town, she’s forced to stay with Sam until Bassam returns; if she’s caught she runs the risk of deportation to Iraq — not a safe place for her due to her family’s helping the occupying forces. She’s forced to deal with Sam as a real person and not an abstract concept, and the evolution of their relationship is satisfying to see.

Their rapid progression from enemies to friends to lovers feels natural and organic, two adjectives Mullin and the cast emphasized repeatedly in the Q&A. “I think the reason the romance works is because they’re three dimensional people,” said Mullin. What trials they do face are not contrived rom-com clichés, but things real people experience every day, like the ignorant comments and assumptions others in their world make about both characters. “Veterans and immigrants are both marginalized in today’s society,” said Mullin, “and I think that’s screwed up.” Shihabi had her own opinions about Amira and how she navigates casual ignorance directed her way. “I just think she’s extremely resilient,” said Shihabi. “She has such a hard skin, she’s a badass. She’s lived through things that are far more difficult [than hurtful comments]. I think falling in love gives you a power nothing else gives you. I think that’s what saves her.”

For Sam’s part, as he comes to the realization that his cousin is exploiting his military credentials to attract investors, and that Charlie’s investment schemes are as questionable as the whole “weird, fucked up system” in which he operates, he faces the moral dilemma of whether or not to become part of that system. In retrospect, the answer seems obvious, but both Charlie and Jack make a case for that system that must’ve seemed eminently reasonable at the time. Wesley brought up an interesting point when asked about his character’s morality, noting “Charlie’s [not], I don’t think, aware of his moral ambiguity. Every villain in every story justifies everything they do with their heart and soul. They never think they’re the bad guy.”

Like Obvious Child and, to a certain extent, The Spectacular Now before it, Amira & Sam represents a satisfying trend in filmmaking. They’re real, simple, heartfelt stories that don’t insult your intelligence, offer up some laughs and charm, and convey subtle but important commentaries on society’s issues for you to digest. Cinema that’s both thoughtful and entertaining is something I can get behind. Put Amira & Sam on your must see-list for 2015 — and if the reasons I’ve already given you haven’t convinced you, do it just to see Martin Starr as a bona fide hottie (perhaps the most unexpected and disturbing aspect of the film, if you’re used to schlumpy, scruffy Starr). If you don’t at least tear up a little bit at the end, well, you may not have a soul.

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