09.01.09

Little Miss Palestine

In the Sundance favorite Amreeka, a single mom goes from the West Bank to White Castle. The Daily Beast's Caryn James on this fall's most charming indie film.

Muna, the down-to-earth heroine of Amreeka, arrives in the United States from the West Bank with her 16-year-old son and offers only smiling agreement to an obtuse officer at passport control. “Citizenship?” he asks. Eager, endearing, speaking fluent but imperfect English, she says, “I don’t have.”

“Then you don’t have a country?” he says sarcastically. She cheerfully nods, and explains she’s from the Palestinian territory. And when he moves on to ask, “Occupation?” she innocently answers, “Yes, it is occupied, for 40 years." That’s as overtly political as this witty little film about Palestinians coming to America becomes.

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Even though the movie pointedly takes place just as the U.S. is invading Iraq in 2003, politics creeps in quietly. First-time writer/director Cherien Dabis leaves it to us to notice the sign outside the White Castle burger joint where Muna works. With a couple of strategic letters missing, it reads “SUPPORT OUR OOPS.” (If only Bush’s famous banner had read “Oops!” instead “Mission Accomplished.”) But Dabis’ own girlhood as the daughter of Middle Eastern immigrants in small-town Ohio, which inspired the film, adds a valuable dimension we never see on screen.

The earliest scenes, set in the West Bank, make the film seem more blatantly political than it is. Muna has to pass through checkpoints to get home from her bank job, and when her son, Fadi, makes a wisecrack to the guard, the boy is hauled out of the car at gunpoint. Muna worries that in America, “We’d be like visitors,” but Fadi says, “It’s better than being prisoners in your own country.”

Even in this fraught political atmosphere, though, the film’s focus is on Muna herself. She is the kind of willful person whose determination has to overcome her lack of self-confidence; a pudgy middle-aged woman who calls attention to her recent weight gain before anyone else can, who is still wounded that her husband has traded her in for a younger, skinny wife. A new life is just what she needs. (Nisreen Faour, unknown here, makes Muna entirely sympathetic and real.)

She finds a different ordeal in Illinois, where she and Fadi move in with her sister and brother-in-law, and their two thoroughly American daughters. Muna is so embarrassed at having to mop floors and flip burgers for a living that she tells her family she is working at the bank next door. The family is mistaken for Iraqi and finds an anonymous threat in the mailbox. Muna’s brother-in-law, a doctor, begins losing so many patients that he can’t pay the mortgage.

Even the kindest characters display unexamined bias. Fadi’s high-school principal, who develops an instant crush on Muna, tries to reassure her when Fadi is bullied, telling her that kids ignorantly assume all Muslims are terrorists. Muna quietly says, “We’re not even Muslim.” Dabis makes all this part of the fabric of her characters’ lives, along with other strands as ordinary as Fadi getting stoned with his American cousin and learning how to dress so he’ll look cool.

As Amreeka was making the festival rounds, including Sundance and the opening night slot at New Directors/ New Films, Dabis often talked about how her girlhood shaped the film. (She has written for the Showtime series The L Word, but Amreeka is her first movie.) The daughter of Jordanian and Palestinian immigrants, she was 14 during the Gulf War. Her father, a doctor, lost patients; the family received death threats. And in an incident more dramatic than any on screen, the Secret Service investigated a rumor that her 17-year-old sister had threatened the president. It’s startling to realize how easily she was able to transport those memories intact from the first Iraq war to the post-9/11 world. But like the sign outside White Castle, Dabis’ memories enhance a film that is fundamentally quite cheerful, taking its cue from the ever-optimistic Muna as she successfully finds her way in a new country.

On the scale of current Iraq-themed movies, Amreeka is far less skewering than the gleefully anti-Bush In the Loop, but more opinionated than the determinedly apolitical soldiers’ story The Hurt Locker. Giving a fresh twist to the evergreen story of immigrants, Amreeka shows how politics infuses daily life, and how the muddled image of Middle Easterners in this country has persisted from that first Iraq conflict straight through to the Big Oops war of today.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew