This is the story of two aliens who fall in love. One is an illegal immigrant from Iraq, living in New York City and hocking bootleg dvds of 27 Dresses on the street corner with little success. The other is an American soldier who’s returned to a country that doesn’t understand him. They are Amira and Sam. They are your neighbors, and they’re good people.
James Fallows recently wrote that “the American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously.” The charge being that the average citizen or legislator is so disconnected from what it means to serve that it has become far too easy to send soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines to fight. Congress members see money and jobs for their district in manufacturing equipment without caring whether or not its the equipment the military needs. Voters won’t hold them accountable because fewer and fewer of them know anyone in or anything about the military. Every problem looks like a nail.
The result is a kind of apotheosis to the gutters. The military becomes a thing of purity that can’t be criticized – which is exactly what it needs, like all organizations, to be a genuinely functional entity. It’s easier to slap a ribbon on your car than to wrestle with what it means at a human level to be a warrior.
On a cultural front, we can add filmmakers to that list as well. They don’t have any power on the front end, of course, but movies are responsible for sharing after-the-fact stories that resonate, and it’s obvious that Hollywood and even independent voices haven’t delivered a movie representative of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars yet. Even if they did, the public at large would theoretically never know it.
Amira and Sam comes very, very close.
Sam (Martin Starr) has only been out of the Army for a few months. He loses his night watchman job after locking drunken assholes in an elevator, and even though it’s no big deal, he goes to his cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) who offers him a vague sales position with his financial firm. Sam meets Amira (Dina Shihabi) when he visits her uncle Bassam (Laith Nakli), an Iraqi translator who he served alongside in Afghanistan.
Sparks don’t fly, but when Amira is threatened with deportation, Bassam asks Sam to hide her in his apartment, and he agrees without hesitation. They build a friendship as Sam learns the warty inner workings of the hedge fund business.
Obviously trying to represent the total experience of modern war with one film is impossible, but while most movies tend to gravitate toward extremes of PTSD or fist-pump heroics, Sam is refreshingly normal. His service and military background matter, but they aren’t nearly the only things that define him. He’s not haunted, he has no psychological problems, he has no physical impairment.
At the same time, he’s had an experience that almost no one else around him has had. By that, I don’t mean a big chunk, or a large majority of the population, but literally 99% of people. He’s both aggressively average and undeniably rare. Part of the 1% who fight our wars for us.
As he seeks a balance between a dull day-to-day and the relief of an empathetic connection, it’s the people around him who most seek to define him as a soldier. His cousin/new boss wants to parade him in front of veterans looking to invest, and even the Veterans Affairs worker treats him like an assembly line G.I. Joe.
For the most part, he’s surrounded by well-meaning jerks – a group of people who simply have no idea how to treat him despite his normalcy. He isn’t from Mars, he doesn’t have a dick growing out of his forehead. He’s a nice guy given the damning veneer of celebrity.
All of that is complexly delivered by Starr, who does the best work of his career here. It’s a reminder that he still has the range and nuance he showed in Freaks and Geeks and has only matured in his delivery. Naturalistic and dryly charming, he comes of as the best friend who you desperately want life to reward. Shihabi makes a strong counterpart in that, creating a character in Amira who is fun, stuck-up, open about her shortcomings, proud, intelligent, and yet not as current on her American slang as she should be. She’s also uncomfortably wedged between a culture that’s new to her and a religious community that doesn’t fully accept her because, despite wearing a hijab, she’s fairly blithe about adhering to the religious code. One group sees her as a terrorist (or Jasmine from Aladdin), the other sees her as a slut, and these are the nations she belongs to.
Sam and Amira make a fantastic pair, carrying a quiet chemistry that makes their romance feel like something epic that can still fit in your front pocket. They come together because both are looking to be treated without the asterisk next to their name and, fittingly, they don’t have lengthy, bloated conversations about that longing. They sense the similarity and go with it.
As you can probably tell, the collaboration between the actors and writer/director Sean Mullin is sharp. Amira and Sam is often told through stories, which is a precarious proposition, but is also another reason to love it. The writing and performances are in sync with the tones that each story needs to convey. They aren’t long, but they’re consistently effective – whether it’s Sam and a veteran/potential investor named Jack (David Rasche) connecting over shared experiences from two different wars, or Sam delicately bombing at his first dinner with Amira and her uncle.
The movie never gets in your face or thumps your chest, which is why I was surprised to find myself tearing up in its final moments. Sam and Amira have essentially just met, and their affection could be seen as a fleeting bit of joy in a world that doesn’t know how to relate to them, but it can also be viewed (correctly, I think) as the necessary result of recognizing yourself in another person and acting on it.
Big problems are ever-present, too, living inside Sam and Amira – ignorance, patronizingly false liberalism, the way we treat vets when they return home, the division facing couples split by deportation. They are both ciphers for casual racism, living Rorschach tests for everyone who they come into connect with.
If that sounds sappy or heavy, don’t worry. The movie floats on a breeze thanks to how funny it is. Starr and Shihabi both have a sardonic way with one-liners. The benign defense mechanism of the outsider – as if Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell watched a Mitch Hedberg routine before riffing through His Girl Friday. Or if Annie Hall didn’t get clunky halfway through.
(In fact, the Woody Allen connection is made clear when Mullin doubles the famous shot from Manhattan with Sam and Amira on a park bench.)
There are a few issues, though. The subplot of Sam dreaming of becoming a stand-up comedian, but flaming out in awkward silence at open mic night, feels stagy and silly considering how at-ease he is being hilarious around strangers throughout the rest of the movie. He seems to fail cosmetically, only to support the plot’s trajectory. Its cinematography is also fairly uninspiring, and it’s in real need of a new score that isn’t a discount store version of Godspeed! You Black Emperor tunes.
Even with those deficiencies, the overall effect is undeniable.
My wife has deployed three times, and I can’t begin to imagine what that experience is truly like, but I sleep next to it every night. I high five it at parties and shake hands with it and drink beers with it. Sam is an excellent reflection of the veterans that I’m friends with – beautifully average people with a few great stories and an unfortunate dress code at work. They do and have done bold things, but they still love barbecuing and playing cornhole on sunny weekends.
At the same time, I can sympathize with everyone else in the story, too. It’s almost completely devoid of a traditional villain (unless you count circumstance and the financial/legal system). It took me a dozen trips before getting comfortable driving onto a military base, and I spent years thinking I didn’t know how to relate to combat veterans. I’ve been on the outside of this life. I’ve been the well-meaning jerk. The difference is one of experience – of making friends with someone in the military – and while it’s a deceptively complicated idea, it’s one that this movie gets right. Maybe Amira and Sam can act as an introduction and antidote for those of us in the 99% who only know of the military through Brothers and The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.
Amira and Sam is both a wonderful story of comfortable love and of the consequences that arise when a community can’t accept a particular kind of normalcy.
The Upside: Naturalistic and funny, important without being heavy, chemistry-laden performances from Starr and Shihabi
The Downside: Some amateurish elements, weak and distracting score
On the Side: Hopefully this film will be seen by enough people to make “I’m just fucking with your asshole,” into a thing.