Taking aim at the American dream

Courtesy of First Generation
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BY EMILY BOUDREAU
Daily Arts Writer
Published November 1, 2009

“God bless America, buy hamburgers,” says the sign outside the White Castle where Muna — Nisreen Faour, “For My Father” — now works. She and her son Fadi — newcomer Melkar Muallem — are Palestinian immigrants who have come to live with family members in America — or as they call it, “Amreeka”— . Fadi and Muna have given up stable jobs, friends and family at home in pursuit of the American dream.

"Amreeka"


At the Michigan Theater
First Generation Films

But America doesn’t end up being what they expected. In the film, America has just entered the war in Iraq, and Muna and her family struggle against prejudice. Their new life ends up being just as trying as life in Palestine.

“Amreeka” seems to give a fair and honest glimpse into life as an immigrant. The characters get homesick, have money problems and struggle with learning and speaking English. America does not make them happy. At the same time, the family members don’t go back to Palestine or give up. As Muna points out, their lives may not be perfect, but they would never be perfect anywhere in the world.

When Muna and her family encounter prejudice, however, the struggle isn't as convincingly directed as their other day-to-day struggles. Whenever the family in the film is harassed, it’s always by a less-educated male from the rougher area of town — the same archetype every time. This limited portrayal of the harassment the family endures certainly doesn't paint a picture of mass nonacceptance of ethnic minorities in America. References are briefly made to Muna’s brother-in-law’s clients leaving him on the basis of his ethnicity, but the drama never materializes on screen.

The film tackles sensitive subject matter and the actors do an admirable job handling it delicately. Faour, however, carries the film and gives the movie its emotional weight. Muna manages to find humor in her struggles. She starts selling herbal weight loss supplements she saw online in order to earn more money, and unfortunately sells them at White Castle, learning too late that Americans do not like to be called “fat.”

Given insufficient screen time to develop their characters, the film's young performers struggle. Alia Shawkat (TV’s “Arrested Development”) plays Fadi’s cousin and takes her role to the extreme. Shawkat comes off a bit too brash and Americanized to the point where she doesn’t mesh well with the family, even in the scenes in which she’s supposed to do so. It's unclear if the director is trying emphasize how America isolates immigrant children from their heritage or if it’s an actual flaw in the film.

Writer and director Cherien Dabis (TV’s “The L Word”) is also able to coax the script's nuances to the surface, calling attention to the darker moments in the funny situations as well. She makes the audience notice American flags and the “Support our Troops” signs and then connects the images with troops in the West Bank and the flags waving there. Despite the serious tone, Dabis manages to keep humor running throughout the film, making sure it doesn't get too dismal. It should be possible for a film to be both funny and edgy, but “Amreeka,” while enjoyable, is not as biting as it could be.

Dabis’s characters all hold onto the idea that America will solve all their problems and they become increasingly upset when this doesn't happen. The film remains unsure of the point it wants to make about modern-day immigrants in America. “Amreeka” presents an idealized picture of America that, at the same time, seeks to tear this idealization down.