Sam (Martin Starr) is an Iraq War vet recently returned to America and working a shitty security guard job. He tracks down Bassam (Laith Nakli), a former translator working with his unit now living in the U.S., and while the two are catching up, he meets Bassam’s beautiful niece Amira (Dina Shihabi), an illegal immigrant living with him in order to escape being killed in Iraq for collaborating with the Americans. Amira dislikes Sam immediately, but the two are forced together when the police nearly catch and deport her and she needs a place to hide. While Sam deals with the moral ramifications of an increasingly lucrative offer from his hedge fund manager cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), he and Amira slowly become closer. But one small slip-up could tear them apart with the police looking for Amira.
Amira & Sam is often gorgeous, but it’s also tragically scattershot, particularly for a 90 minute long movie. The romance is sweet and the film shines when Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi are together on screen. Unfortunately, the film also deals extensively with Wall Street culture, veteran alienation and disaffection, immigration, and more. Each of these threads are interesting and well cast, though the Wall Street bits were so thick with smarm that they were honestly a bit hard to watch, but it meant that too little time was dedicated to the movie’s core relationship. On the one hand, that’s admirable – Amira and Sam each have their own stories, and while the movie gives Sam a much more active role, Amira has her own conflicts, challenges, and opinions. On the other hand, it neuters the romance, giving us little sense of what the relationship is built on until quite late in the film. A great romance makes us fall in love with the couple, makes is want them to work out, and Amira & Sam operates heavily under the assumption that we’re already with them.
Which is too bad, because Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi are quite solid together, and Sean Mullin wrote them some sweet scenes. Their first night together builds from awkwardness to tenderness in a methodical, relatable way, the sort of transformation from playfulness to longing when you make those tentative first steps with a new partner. It has one of the most honest seduction scenes I’ve seen in a film, a low key miracle that grounds the whole film, and I so sincerely wish that the rest of the movie had been able to live up to that one gorgeous moment.
It never quite does, in large part because that’s not particularly what the movie was about. Sean Mullin found a novel approach to most aspects of the film, and those that played it straight it did so with charm and skill. This isn’t a film about a tormented veteran healed by the love of a beautiful woman; instead, Amira & Sam is the story of a veteran who comes home to find a country eating itself alive and just tries to stay straightforward and decent. Part of that decency is in his assistance of Samira, who he recognizes is breaking the law but who he also realizes cannot go home for fear of her life. But because of this thematic focus on Sam, Amira’s own story gets short shrift.
Mullins has a lot to say about the state of America, and while Amira plays into that vision, Sam is the one doing the seeing. We have a tendency in pop culture to paint veterans with a pretty broad brush, seeing them largely as hard men damaged by a dirty business. Sam is clear-eyed and sardonic, largely free of PTSD. The key to his being a veteran is that he was gone for years. He signed up shortly after 9/11 and served for six or seven years; he came back to a country on the verge of the Great Recession and utterly disinterested in exploring how it had reached that point. Intriguingly, Mullin doesn’t whole-heartedly slam Wall Street, acknowledging – as few have – that this rapid growth and greed is what the American public wants so long as we don’t have to see the consequences ourselves. And yet, because this is only a third of the story, he can’t go into the same depth of something like The Big Short in examining how we as a society reached this point.
So, what are we left with? Half of a gorgeous romance, and half of a scathing indictment of American greed. Both halves are good and have some interesting things to say… but the two never cohere. Amira’s immigration issues never feel like they’re happening in the same film as Sam’s financial ones, which is too bad, because Dina Shihabi’s Amira, a girl caught between two very different cultures, steals the show in damn near every scene she’s in. Shihabi is so clearly a star waiting to happen here. And Martin Starr, one of my favorite underworked actors for about 17 years now, is great in his own role. I just wish they felt like they were in the same movie. Amira & Sam is charming and well-cast and undeniably sweet, and Mullin’s characters defy easy characterization for deeper points. Because of all that, its ramshackle nature doesn’t hurt it as much as it could have. Ultimately, Amira & Sam is slighter than it should be, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Amira & Sam is available now on DVD and blu-ray from Drafthouse Films, and is streaming free on Amazon Prime. Written and directed by Sean Mullin, Amira & Sam stars Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi.