Filmmaking as an act of creative rebellion – first time feature writer/director Sean Mullin's Amira & Sam is as sweetly earnest as it is achingly wise.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, "character is plot" and "plot is character," and Amira & Sam adheres to that adage from the very beginning, building off of its two gorgeously acted (particularly by Silicon Valley scene-stealer Martin Starr in a beautiful turn that's totally against his often comedic type) and richly written characters without wasting a single scene.
An existential coming-of-age movie disguised as a romance, the film is centered around Martin Starr's titular Sam, a hardworking, prideful, and quick-witted Green Beret who is stunned to discover that life during wartime makes even less sense in the states than it did overseas, upon returning to his New York home.
Set seven years in the past, back in 2008 at the start of the Kardashian craze, when Facebook was still friending, the economy was on the brink of collapse and Twilight infected teens with vampire fever, Amira & Sam is a far cry from typical tales of postwar woe.
More humanistic than melodramatic, Mullin's movie emphasizes emotional authenticity over Hollywoodized tragedy, steering clear of the stereotypes and contrived plot points that have saturated post-war PTSD narratives of soldier coming home stories since the 1940s without sugarcoating a damn thing.
And this approach is evident right from the start in a brilliantly written introduction to our male lead which finds him being treated like a second class citizen by the crass party boys of Wall Street.
Fired by an overly apologetic boss after giving his bullies a brief lesson in humility, the film makes it repeatedly clear that Sam is challenged less by what he's been through during multiple tours of duty in the past than by his need to decide just what he'd like to do in the future.
More specifically, Sam struggles to figure out both his own identity as well as where he belongs in a post 9/11 society that's struggling to do the same in a subplot that gradually usurps everything else when he encounters a fellow outsider from the Middle East in the form of actress Dina Shihabi's Amira.
The beautiful, headstrong niece of an army translator that the now fluent in Arabic Sam had befriended in Iraq (played by Laith Nakli), Amira is initially wary of his military background.
After she gets into trouble with the authorities and is threatened with deportation, Sam makes a promise to her uncle to keep Amira safe and hidden until he can drive her to stay with another relative in the Midwest.
A critically acclaimed hit on the festival circuit – given the central theme of two outsiders who find a kindred spirit in one another, the film has been frequently compared to Richard Linklater's likeminded strangers turned would-be lovers by chance contemporary Gen X classic Before Sunrise (which also spawned two sequels in Before Sunset and Before Midnight).
And while it is easily reminiscent of that picture as well as the 2011 indie sleeper Stuck Between Stations (which revolves around a soldier on leave who crosses paths with the girl he’s had a crush on for years), Sam's roots go back even further.
Of course, it harks back to the freewheeling walk-and-talk French New Wave films made by Éric Rohmer (whose work obviously influenced Linklater). But at its heart, Amira & Sam feels like a direct descendant of Vincente Minnelli's bittersweet WWII love story The Clock to such an extent that I feel it would be intriguing to watch them back-to-back as a double feature given their comparisons and contrasts about love and war.
Visually it pays tribute to Manhattan and other New York stories. However, it’s weightier than Linklater's film and Woody Allen's romances given both its illegal immigration/deportation plotline focusing on Amira as well as an intelligently handled crisis of conscience after Sam finds himself caught in between ethics and family duty when his closest cousin (Paul Wesley) enlists him in a hedge fund scheme that may not be as clear cut as it seems.
Needless to say, Amira & Sam has an awful lot on its mind for what one may be tempted to classify solely as a romance.
And while the penultimate act seems a bit rushed, the sensitive portrayals, thoughtful writing, and character dominant plotlines ensure that when the conflicts arise, they feel organic rather than melodramatic or too conveniently manufactured.
Admirably and rather remarkably for a feature filmmaking debut, it avoids caricature or easy outs particularly when it comes to the evolution of Sam's dealings with his cousin or a Vietnam veteran he encounters of whom he fears he may have inadvertently taken advantage.
Amira & Sam might end on an upbeat note right out of its heroine's favorite romantic comedies but the world and the individuals who reside within Mullin's impressively crafted landscape never strike us as anything less than genuine, three dimensional, and relatably complex.
Lovingly transferred to Blu-ray high definition from Drafthouse Films and Cinedigm, complete with a bevy of bonus features as well as a digital copy to download or stream, Mullin's independent crowd-pleaser is also available on DVD and digital download.
A refreshing spin on the solider’s story subgenre that avoids easy classification (in the spirit of its winning leads), Mullin’s character driven effort crosses borders and boundaries, taking us on an unexpected journey that I’m sure more viewers will love to explore.
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