I love movies about the changing face of the U.S. I'm particularly partial to stories about immigrants who live in identity-challenging twilight zones; they're not fully integrated into American society, and they may no longer fit into their countries of origin, either. For immigrants who arrive from the Middle East, problems are compounded by the hostility and prejudice they can face, particularly at times when anti-Arab feelings swell.
Amreeka tells the story of a move to the U.S. by a divorced Palestinian woman and her 16-year-old son. They're searching for safety and for new opportunities, and Amreeka deftly exposes issues they face as they try to adapt to a green-card lifestyle.
After arriving in the U.S., Mom (Nisreen Faour), skilled as a bank worker, can find employment only at a White Castle. Her son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) faces taunting by some of his more bigoted classmates. Faour's Muna and Muallem's Fadi land at O'Hare International Airport at about the time that the U.S. begins its invasion of Iraq, not the best moment for Arabs in America, even those, who like Amreeka's mother and son, are not Muslims.
In many ways, director Cherien Dabis' movie is a chronicle of woe, yet Dabis -- an Arab-American -- has no taste for over-amped drama or hand wringing. Muna moves into the home of her sister (Hiam Abbass) and her husband (Yussuf Abu-Warda), a doctor whose patients are deserting him because he's an Arab. The family faces a host of predictable problems: kids who are thoroughly Americanized and uninterested in tradition, bills that can't be paid because the doctor's income has declined, and growing marital tensions between the doctor and his wife.
Set in a suburb of Chicago, Amreeka follows Muna and Fadi as they navigate their way through a culture that doesn't always make sense to them. Muna can't quite penetrate the mysteries of White Castle, and Fadi's adjustment is neither stress nor bump free, a shock to him because he initially thought life would improve drastically once he arrived in the U.S. Muna and Fadi also deal with homesickness and uncertainty about whether they've made the right choice by moving into a society that's not eager to roll out the welcome mat for them.
Dabis, who's not afraid to inject humor into the proceedings, seems more interested in describing the immigrant experience than in offering any prescriptions for her characters. They stumble along, doing the best they can. That means they're a lot more like us than we initially might have imagined.