Sean Mullin’s sweet yet cuttingly cynical romantic dramedy Amira & Sam hits all the right notes. I love that this film went with its heart in the final act. Martin Starr kills it here – if you’re a fan of his deadpan comedy stylings from HBO’s Silicon Valley then you owe it to yourself to see him all cleaned up and looking crisp and buff in this funny, touching, sad, and finally hopeful little gem that knows exactly what to do during its 85 minute run time. Mullin brings his well-earned real life experiences to the film, so it’s no surprise that the narrative stings with truth and believability despite the mis-matched romance at its center. That the film believes in the power of love is its greatest virtue, as Mullin has created two fully fleshed out characters 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 time. It’s also an awesome “New York” movie, with a terrific sense of place and atmosphere, which brings a welcome verisimilitude to the project which might feel unexpected considering the low budget. If you’re not familiar with this movie, please seek it out.
The story hinges on Sam (Starr), an Iraq war veteran who by chance meets Amira (Dina Shihabi), the beautiful niece, and illegal immigrant, of his wartime translator who has relocated to New York. 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, the chemistry that Starr has with Shihabi is palpable, playful, and sexy, and I loved how Mullin threw in pointed jabs about the messed up immigration system that continually plagues America. This is a film that wants to say something about our current social and political landscape, and that it does, with smarts, clarity, and force. And Mullin’s sensitivity towards veterans is noticeable from the outset, and while never condescending, he paints a portrait of Sam as a man who is still reeling from his experiences and who hopes to overcome any psychological turmoil that me might be expecting. Paul Wesley’s scummy supporting performance (he was also excellent in Before I Disappear) acts as a comment on young greed run amok in our post 9/11 landscape, and I love how Mullin seemingly isn’t afraid of mixing the topical with the tried-and-true conventions of the romantic comedy. And while the film is funny, there’s a dramatic center to the entire picture that lends it credibility. Laith Nakli (perfectly pensive) and David Rasche (perfectly to the point) also offer strong supporting performances.
Feeling like a cousin in some respects to Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, this is a film that operates on a few 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 has an affinity for his characters (he also wrote the original screenplay, which seemingly feels based on some of his life experiences to go off the Wikipedia page). But when you cut to it, the bleeding heart of this movie rests in the two wonderful performances from Starr and Shihabi, 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 narrative has come to a conclusion. Without spoiling anything, the final moments of this small gem are absolutely perfect, encapsulating all of the ideas and themes that Mullin has worked to convey throughout his story, and while their road might be fraught with uncertainty, you’re always rooting for Amira & Sam, which is a pleasure for the audience. This is one of those small, under the radar movies that deserves to find an audience!