Is jumping from one seemingly miserable existence to another worthwhile? What happens when life hands us conclusive proof that the grass is most definitely not greener on the other side of the fence? What do immigrants have to put up with in their new chosen worlds, and why do they do it? In the independent movie Amreeka, first time director Cherien Dabis examines these pervasive issues with humour, poignancy, realism and a warm heart.
Single mom Muna (Nisreen Faour) is struggling to make ends meet, living with her teen-aged son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) in Bethlehem under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. When they unexpectedly receive an opportunity to immigrate to the United States, Muna is hesitant but Fadi convinces his mom that the chance to start a new life is too good to pass up. They arrive in suburban Chicago circa 2003, to live with Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbas), her husband Nabeel (Yussuf Abu Warda), and their three daughters.
Having jumped out of the frying pan, Muna and Fadi find themselves squarely in the fire. The Unites States has just invaded Iraq, and anti-Arab sentiment is rife among the ignorant. Nabeel, an established and well-respected doctor, is losing patients as his clients abandon him. His marriage to Raghda is strained with serious financial worries, not helped by having to sustain Muna and Fadi, and compounded by anonymous threats of violence directed at the family.
Meanwhile, despite ten years of experience working in a bank, the best Muna can do is find a humiliating job flipping burgers at the local White Castle. And Fadi is quickly the target of anti-Arab bullying at his new school, and gets sucked into drug use and petty confrontations.
Muna and Fadi have to face the reality that their new life has at least as many challenges as the life they left behind; and they have to decide if the new difficulties are worth overcoming.
At the centre of the movie, Nisreen Faour shines as the self-consciously overweight, dedicated mother who will try anything and sacrifice everything for her son, only to quickly lose him to a new culture. She never abandons her sense of humour, poise or can-do, positive attitude.
Another of the movie's assets is a mean streak of humour that shines through the darkest moments. Director Dabis also wrote Amreeka, and she demonstrates a keen ear for the sharp wit that sustains immigrants as they struggle to adapt to their surroundings and carve out some space and dignity in a new world.
Most impressive is the movie's focus on the real-world human experience, good and bad. There are no angels, no heroes and no perfect characters or relationships in Amreeka. Just flawed humans with big hearts, doing the best they can, and learning life's lessons mostly by committing every mistake in the book.
Amreeka ends not by wrapping up the story of Muna and Fadi in a neat package, but by celebrating the joy that comes in finding life's little pleasures, unexpected helping hands and sympathetic ears hidden within the messy daily trek that we call living.
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