The difficulties faced by Palestinian immigrants to the U.S. in the wake of suspicion following the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq provide the context for Cherien Dabis’ earnest comedy-drama, which covers familiar territory but in an unpretentious, and so reasonably pleasant fashion.
Nisreen Faour gives a big-hearted if somewhat sit-comish performance as Muna, a divorcee in Ramallah who’s unexpectedly given the opportunity to escape the confining atmosphere of Israeli occupation—and provide her teen son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) with an American education—by emigrating to the U.S. After a tearful leave-taking from her mother and brother, the two make their way to Chicago, where they’ll initially live with her sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass, strong as usual), her physician husband, and their two daughters.
Unfortunately, misfortune strikes immediately, as Muna loses all the money she’s brought with her, leaving the newcomers without means of their own. And when she tries to find work, despite her background in banking all she can get as a job selling burgers at White Castle, a demeaning circumstance she keeps from the family. Meanwhile Fadi faces bullying at school, despite his cousin Salma’s (Alia Shawkat) support. And as her husband’s practice faces a decline in patients—again as a result of prejudice—Raghda increasingly pushes him to return to Palestine, not realizing (as Muna tells her)) how things have changed for the worse there.
But one shouldn’t think that “Amreeka” (the Palestinian pronunciation) as a screed against bigotry in the U.S. Muna and Fadi meet supportive people—a woman working in a bank near the White Castle, who aids in her deception, and especially the principal of the boy’s school (Joseph Ziegler), who may be Jewish but puts himself on the line with the police when Fadi gets intro trouble, and also takes a shine to Muna. There’s also considerable amusement in Muna’s exasperation over her weight, and her relationship with the young blue-haired dropout who works with her at the burger counter.
And the picture ends on a sweet, upbeat note, with a family meal that includes one new member.
One could never describe “Amreeka” as a hard-hitting treatment of the reception Arabs receive in the United States. It’s critical, but the criticism is gentle rather than biting; and it’s leavened with splashes of humor. And though some of the supporting cast is amateurish (like those school bullies), Faour’s exuberant turn, and her touching relationship with Muallem as a boy trying to fit in, carry the day.