It’s hard to be original with romantic comedies. The history of this comedy sub-genre is just too long. The key is the chemistry of the two leads. Oftentimes they are mismatched and yet somehow by the time the end credits start to roll a tangible relationship has developed. In the vain sense, the imparity is mostly on account of looks and not personality. For Amira & Sam, first time writer-director Sean Mullin has made a rom-com involving an Anglo-American soldier and an Iraqi woman, which seems like a total clash in cultures in today’s society.
Sam (Martin Starr) looks like a milquetoast but is an army veteran returning home to 2008 New York after a few tours in Iraq. His routine consists of taking the ferry over from Staten Island to work a menial job as a doorman at a high-rise apartment, serving those who have little respect for the low- to middle-class. Amira (Dina Shihabi) spends her days hawking bootleg DVDs at street corners, trying to convince a passersby to buy 27 Dresses or Jim Carrey’s Yes Man (you know, the one like Liar, Liar only here he can’t say no).
It’s conceivable these two could have a meet-cute moment in the Big Apple on accident alone, but it helps that Sam has a friendship with Amira’s uncle, Bassam (Laith Nakli), who worked as a translator for his army unit. At first, Amira is suspicious of Sam when he comes to visit Bassam sensing that he might be a cop. When Amira learns that Sam served overseas, she is coiled fury, having seen enough of his kind in her homeland.
The title Amira & Sam leaves little guesswork in figuring out what happens with these two (the ampersand gives it away!), but the film does a good job at establishing the two characters and the common characteristics that exist. Martin Starr, who will forever be linked to the short-lived television series Freaks & Geeks and his character Bill Haverchuck, is great in a rare lead performance as Sam, an army sergeant who seems lost after returning to New York. The estrangement he feels is not lost in his interactions with the one-percent or the skepticism he has about an offer to work with his cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), who manages a hedge fund on Wall Street. Sam can’t understand what the hell happened to the country he left and defended with his life after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. For Amira, she may wear a hijab but she isn’t submissive in the least. Fleeing Iraq to America she has acclimated to her new surroundings and has the assertiveness that Sam lacks when he returns home.
As the narrative conveniently forces them together after Amira flees arrest, the time spent in each other’s company sees their defenses wane in favor of romance. Sam and Amira may be people moving in opposite directions, but the perspective of living in Iraq is something that can’t be shared with many. Knowing this, it allows Starr and Shihabi to play off each other beautifully in simple situations, like sitting on a park bench and talking about “poking” on Facebook. This leads to a great “I’m just kidding with you”-type reply, and it’s a quote that I hope catches on.
Sean Mullin was an officer in the National Guard and a 9/11 first responder, so using his personal background in outlining the character of Sam was advantageous to a degree. He even has Sam aspire to be a stand-up comic, something Mullin has also done in his past. Sam’s first attempt in front of a crowd with a pocketbook of scribbled jokes is a slow-motion car accident in delivery but feels real considering his banality.
Mullin doesn’t do any fancy camerawork, but the film feels more like a play with its minimal locations and being garrulous. The best sequence is a long, unbroken take with Amira and Sam talking in bed for a few minutes as they try to take the romantic spark to the next level. It’s an honest moment between two characters and is sublime with its simple approach.
There’s financial subplot in Amira & Sam where Charlie tries to use Sam’s military record as a means to land potential investors. It helps to further Sam’s disillusionment with the current state of the times, but is not at all necessary to the story. The heart and more enjoyable moments is the emotional interplay between Sam and Amira. Similar to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and seeing what happens over the course of one night when an American man and French woman have a meet-cute moment on a train. That sort of minimalist quality is what engages and the chemistry Starr and Shihabi share is enough to make Amira & Sam a pleasant romance.
Amira & Sam is playing exclusively in Houston at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – Vintage Park, now through February 5th.
AMIRA & SAM Date Night for Military Service Members and Veterans
For the theatrical opening weekend of AMIRA & SAM all active duty and veteran military service members will be able to bring a date to see the film for free. Service members can present a valid Military ID at the box office to receive a free ticket with the purchase of a ticket to see AMIRA & SAM.
*For tickets purchased in advance online, present your valid Military ID for a ticket refund.
**Offer valid from January 30 – February 1
Director: Sean Mullin
Writer: Sean Mullin
Starring: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Paul Wesley
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rating: Not Rated