ACTRESS SPOTLIGHT: DINA SHIHABI — AMIRA & SAM — BY NICK CLEMENT

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Sean Mullin’s sweet and feisty romantic dramedy Amira & Sam hits all the right notes, and a big reason for the film’s success is the terrific performance from leading actress Dina Shihabi. I love that this film went with its heart in the final act, and I found it to be a touching, sad, and finally hopeful little gem that knew exactly what it wanted to say. That the film believes in the power of love is one of its greatest virtues, as Mullin created two fully fleshed out characters (Shihabi’s co-star is the fantastic Martin Starr) in a relatively short amount of time, lending credence to the notion that great chemistry can propel any cinematic relationship forward even in the briefest amount of screen time. The story hinges on Sam (Starr), an Iraq war veteran who by chance meets Amira (Shihabi), the beautiful niece of his wartime translator, who also happens to be an illegal immigrant. Through a series of potentially life altering circumstances, Sam is asked to hide Amira after a run-in with the NYPD, while an unexpected romance blossoms between the two lost souls. Their “meet-cute” is wonderful and the palpable chemistry that Shihabi and Starr crafted together was playful and sexy. The film feels like a cousin in some respects to Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, as it’s a work that operates on multiple levels, with comedy masking some rather upsetting notions of estrangement, and while what happens in the final moments might strike some as unlikely, I believed it because of how well defined the central relationship was and because Mullin clearly had an affinity for his characters.
 
But when you cut to the film’s core, the bleeding heart of the narrative rests in the two wonderful lead performances from Shihabi and Starr, who both inhabit real people in an increasingly stressful yet hopeful situation, one with no easy answers and no pat resolutions by the time the story has come to its conclusion. Shihabi, for her part, knew precisely how to balance her character’s initial frustrations with a keen sense of comic timing and dramatic intent, while never allowing her potentially caustic behavior to overwhelm any portion of her early scenes. She paints a well balanced portrait, in an economical amount of time, of a person who is struggling to find herself in the world, and you gain her sympathy — and empathy — almost immediately as a result of her openness as an actress. Her eyes suggest desire and hope while her body language suggests fear and pessimism, which was crucial for the audience in order to understand how volatile her situation was during the course of the story. And without spoiling anything that this lovely film has to offer, the final moments strike as note-perfect, encapsulating all of the ideas and themes that Mullin had worked so hard to convey throughout his story. Shihabi’s ability to convey hard-fought sincerity while allowing her emotional guard to be slowly lowered by Starr’s smitten potential beau is a further testament to how carefully conceived her character was by Mullin, and how delicately Shihabi pulled it all off. And while Amira and Sam’s road might be fraught with uncertainty, you’re always rooting for them as a couple, which is a pleasure for the audience. This is one of those small, under the radar movies that deserves to find an audience!

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