Amira & Sam is both a refreshing take on romantic relationships and a rehashing of the same tired genre confines, throwing likable characters into yet another case of unexpected situational love – or so the film tries to convince us. From the very first moment Amira and Sam meet, we’re led to believe that military tension will keep the two separated for life, but through the power of magnetic attraction (and Martin Starr’s sexy sailor skills), these two crazy kids channel Rihanna and Calvin Harris by eventually finding love in a hopeless place. That’s the sweetness of Amira & Sam, but unfortunately writer/director Sean Mullin doesn’t stop there. The filmmaker utilizes such a beautiful, caring bond to analyze a degrading state of American affairs, joining two people in the face of oppression, racist tendencies, corporate greed, and some of the worst stand-up comedy New York City has to offer – to varying degrees of mixed results.
Martin Starr plays Sam, an out-of-service soldier trying to assimilate back into a normal, non-military life, but he’s finding the current landscape of the United States to be just as dangerous as Afghani soil. After a security gig ends in termination, Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) finds a use for his veteran status, bringing his “favorite” family member in to close high-profile investment deals with ex-military millionaires. Sam helps at first, but starts to become suspicious about the whole situation, right around the same time he grows close to an Iraqi immigrant named Amira (Dina Shihabi). Finding happiness in her company, their relationship is threatened when Amira learns she’s being deported, leaving Sam to devise an escape plan before she vanishes forever.
Mullin, a recovering 9/11 veteran, draws upon his own opinionated perception when crafting Sam’s increasingly disturbed outlook, pinpointing the unfortunate ways America seems to be transforming. Corruption has become too commonplace in today’s success-driven world, but Mullin’s take is bitingly bleak and a bit too conspiracy-theory-esque when pitted against an already stretched romantic chase. Sam lives in a world of exploitation, extortion, and crooked dealings, and he just can’t seem to understand how so many people justify doing things like claiming military disability without any physical ailments. He’s a man of no handouts, no charity, and only self-pride – which is the path ALL of us should choose – but he’s also portrayed as the ONLY US-bred citizen staying honest. Amira & Sam raises socially relevant points about the manipulative mindset of today’s generation, but such a scathing treatment requires a bit more subtlety and a toned-down focus on villainous broken systems to sustain cultural poignancy.
There’s a delightfully playful chemistry between Starr and the lovely Dina Shihabi, as Amira becomes fond of “f$cking with Sam’s asshole” (a reference to her comically off-color understanding of English slang), but their inevitable set-up feels rushed when incorporated into the bigger picture of Amira & Sam. Mullin offers up their multi-racial union as a peace treaty to those still harboring anti-Muslim hatred years after any sort of war, as an ex-soldier professes his longing adoration towards a hijab-wearing-immigrant. Their relationship is a symbol of acceptance, reassurance, and humanity, and both actors do a wonderful job pushing forward themes of love and coexistence – yet it still feels too slight in comparison to “the Man’s” chokehold.
Mullin’s personal experiences do provide a tender touch to his cinematic style, as he blends gritty, experimental angles with straight rips from a filmmaking 101 textbook. At times the camera enters a static volatility that shakes around and displays a grainier picture, like something you might notice in an art-house effort, while other times Mullin displays skillful framing techniques that capture New York City’s sunset-lit skylines. The recycled material becomes obvious though, especially when Amira and Sam share their first intimate night together by starting with a slow, sensual removing of each other’s clothing while staring deeply into transfixed eyes – like so many romantic cliches before. Mullin has a strong eye for framing and detail at times, but his weaknesses shine a light on an unfocused script that struggles to balance emotional strength with a worldly commentary.
Amira & Sam pushes the envelope by allowing newcomer Dina Shihabi to play an Iraqi love interest, which highlights an unseen form of spiritual beauty that American audiences aren’t used to, but Mullin struggles to marry what seems like two separate movies vying for dominance. On one hand we have Sam’s fears of American capitalism and rampant dishonesty, and on the other a sweet romance about two little fishies caught out-of-water, but neither lets the other fully blossom. Amira & Sam tells a brave story about assimilation being equally difficult for a foreign immigrant and a home-grown military man, showing how similar people are despite pre-judged ethnicities and foreign characteristics, but strong performances by Starr and Shihabi fail to counterbalance an almost cartoonish take on corrupt moneymen – something that sullies such a lively, grounded romance.
Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi build a wonderful chemistry between their characters, but a heartwarming nature is struck down by an unbalanced script that struggles to speak volumes about the unfortunate state of American social norms.