"There's nothing not to like about this charming, lovely little comedy."
Movies about immigrant families coming to America are a dime a dozen, so nobody's saying Amreeka is anything groundbreaking. What it is, though, is warm-hearted and pleasant, a perfectly enjoyable comedy for the Palestinian refugee in all of us.
Our heroine, hapless and harried single mother Muna (Nisreen Faour), lives with her mother and teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), in the little town of Bethlehem. Muna works at a bank, a commute that once took 15 minutes but now takes two hours thanks to the numerous checkpoints and other inconveniences associated with living in Palestine; Fadi describes the situation as being "prisoners in our own country."
When an opportunity arises to emigrate to America, Muna and Fadi jump on it, moving in with Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) and her doctor husband Nabeel (Yussef Abu Warda) in suburban Illinois. This is an improvement over the situation in Palestine, but it's still not ideal. The film is set in 2003, just after the Iraq invasion, and anti-Arab ignorance in the United States has resulted in some of Nabeel's patients leaving him. Fadi suffers some taunting at school, too, though it's offset by the presence of his American-born cousin, Salma (Alia Shawkat), who knows how to deal with high school idiots. Muna, for her part, is forced to take a menial job at White Castle after none of the banks will hire her.
Yet this is not a movie about racism faced by Palestinian immigrants. When Muna and Fadi are detained at the airport, the film treats it more with amusement than outrage, and it doesn't seem to be Muna's nationality that prevents her from getting a bank job. Instead, this is a movie about the importance of family and culture, and about the basic truth that most people are inherently decent. Fadi and Salma's principal (Joseph Ziegler) becomes friendly to the family; a fellow White Castle employee (Brodie Sanderson) helps Muna; and the intra-family squabbling that arises out of stress is eventually resolved peacefully.
This is the first film by writer/director Cherien Dabis, a TV writer and producer (notably on The L Word) whose parents were Palestinian/Jordanian immigrants. A few plot elements are over-simplified, and Fadi's ability to discern exactly which punks were picking on his mother based solely on their description as "teenagers" strains credulity. But apart from details like that, there's nothing not to like about this charming, lovely little comedy.