Much like the too-quickly cancelled sitcom Aliens In America, Cherien Dabis’ debut feature Amreeka tracks the friction that arises when an optimistic Arab relocates to the American Midwest. But Amreeka lacks the sense of humor that set Aliens In America apart—and frankly, it’s rarely as insightful about the biases and strengths either of Arab émigrés or of sheltered Midwesterners. Nisreen Faour plays a Palestinian who moves herself and her teenage son from the West Bank to a small town in Illinois, where they take up residence with relatives who were doing well in the States prior to 9/11. Though eager for a fresh start, Faour has her resolve tested early, when customs officials seize her nest egg, and when she finds that it isn’t as easy to get a job in the banking industry in America as it was back home. Meanwhile, her son’s getting into fights with the bigots at school, and her family turns out to be far more cynical—even contemptuous—about The American Dream than she expected. And yet she wakes up every day, determined to prove to all the doubters around her that she can make a go of it, even if she has to pretend that she’s happier than she is.
There’s much to like about Amreeka, including a winning lead performance, and a rare, clearly personal exploration of how it feels to assimilate in a country where your national origin makes you automatically suspect. But the movie’s reliance on simplistic conflicts and crowd-pleasing resolutions is deeply disappointing. Faour is a fully rounded character: a pro-American Arab with wit, foibles, and a winning outlook on life. And yet Amreeka is one of those movies where there’d be no story if the heroine didn’t refuse to reveal certain information to her family, out of some vague notion of pride. And it’s one of those movies that plays to the cheap seats, making the racism bigger, the assimilation process rougher, and the family squabbles extra-broad, lest viewers miss the point. Amreeka went over well at Sundance, and for good reason: It’s a very Sundance-y film, in that it seems to tackle a tough, uncommercial subject, but is actually thoroughly mainstream in its approach. Writer-director Dabis has a great grasp of this milieu, showing how Arabs are unfairly asked to fit in to the American mainstream more than any other immigrant group. It’s just too bad that at every turn, the plot gets in Amreeka’s way.