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Amira & Sam

Year: 2014
Production Co: Five By Eight Productions
Director: Sean Mullin
Writer: Sean Mullin
Cast: Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi

Amira and Sam is a Romeo and Juliet-inspired modern day star cross'd lovers tale set in the contemporary world and with characters from opposite sides of thoroughly modern tracks. Sam (Martin Starr) is an Iraq war veteran who's still adjusting to life back home in New York, a quiet, unassuming guy who's nothing like the gruff yokel currently being portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the other Iraq war story getting all the attention right now, American Sniper.

Sam wants to try his hand at stand-up comedy, drawing on the culture shock of coming home as his source material. He dutifully keeps a private journal of jokes and ideas but as we see in an early scene, he's terrible at it when he gets up on stage.

He enters the fold of a cousin, slick financial trader Charlie (Paul Wesley), who wants to bring Sam on board at his company to sell investment funds to rich former soldiers like Jack (David Rasche) who'll respond more to one of their own than a slimy Wall St type. Charlie promises Sam a life of riches and everything seems to be falling into place for him – there's just the small matter of an SEC investigation into the company's dealings Charlie assures him is nothing.

Amira (Dina Shihabi) is a firebrand young Iraqi woman, undocumented and selling pirated DVDs on street corners as she lives with her Uncle Bassam (Laith Nakli). When Sam comes to visit his old friend – who served as a translator to Sam's platoon – he's introduced to the frosty Amira, who wastes no time showing her contempt.

But when the cops nab her at her dubious work one day, she knows she's headed for deportation. The deadly fate that awaits her back in her own country is only hinted at, but when she gets the opportunity to make a break, she runs from the arresting officer.

Her and Bassam know she has to get out of the apartment because they'll come looking for her, and with nowhere else to send her Bassam asks Sam if he can hide Amira at his place. Sam's willing and tries to be friendly, but Amira icily assures him it's not for long.

It's no surprise that the two gradually fall in love over the next few days – sailing in the boat Sam's family has left him and arguing over who sleeps in the tiny single bed in his sparse apartment in a long and exquisitely romantic scene.

There are no real surprises in the story and like a blockbuster it's not rich in detail. The character of Sam is no doubt meant to be reserved and slightly sardonic, but Starr could have played him a little bit bigger. He barely cracks a smile throughout the movie, let alone emotes much.

In fact next to the gorgeous, larger than life Dina Shihabi as Amira he almost disappears completely. Watching her in fact makes up for any shortfall in the at-times simplistic script and story beats that don't always ring true.

With her face framed by hijabs for most of the movie, Shihabi's flashing dark eyes, angry frown and wide smile are like special effects in themselves, passion for every minute exuding from her. She's a whirlwind – physically beautiful, self-assured and vulnerable all at once and a force of personality.

Far from whatever stereotypes you might have about young Iraqi women, Amira also has several laugh out loud funny lines, unselfconsciously telling Sam at one point she's just 'fucking with his arsehole' – garbled colloquial English to mean she's messing with him.

When he takes her to Charlie's upscale engagement party, she brings the proceedings to a standstill when some stuck up Hamptons types ask how she knows Sam and she proclaims in a loud voice 'I'm a prostitute.'

Casting her performance so far and wide, Shihabi's role can be a little bit rough around the edges, but the unapologetic throwing of herself into the part is what makes her one to watch. Every other aspect of the film is fine if a little pedestrian, but she overpowers them all.

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