Sam" tells the "unlikely" story of the romance between a United
States Army Special Forces vet who served in Iraq and an undocumented immigrant
from that country. What's important here is that writer/director Sean Mullin
(his feature debut) keeps quotation marks around the perceived
"unlikeliness" of their romance. There is ultimately nothing strange
or conflicted about their connection. It develops at its own, natural pace.
It's simply the story of two people who learn about each other's life and
interests, and out of that, mutual affection grows.
There are kinks
in its progression, of course. Sam (Martin Starr) and Amira (Dina Shihabi) have
a rough start upon their first meeting. He's visiting Amira's uncle Bassam
(Laith Nakli), who served as a translator for Sam's unit in Iraq and whom Sam
saved during an ambush. Amira's brother was killed in the crossfire during a
different attack, and she sees Sam as just another American soldier who, in her
mind, is as responsible for her brother's death as the soldiers who were there
It's a pretty big
hurdle, but Mullin sees personal connections as indeterminable feelings that go
beyond politics and history. Bassam explains how Sam saved his life, upheld a
promise to see him again, and presented him with the star from a burnt American
flag he tried to save during the firefight. Whatever prejudices Amira
previously had slowly dissipate—at least for this man—as she starts to learn
that he's not representative of American foreign policy or the soldiers who
couldn't protect her brother. He's just a decent guy.
With her internal
obstacles to overcome, Amira is the more intriguing part of the pair, although
Mullin's screenplay is far more interested in Sam. His problems are entirely
external and more than a bit contrived.
honestly enough. Sam is fired from a security job at an apartment building
after locking a group of disrespectful, drunk residents in an elevator. His
cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), a hedge fund manager who helped him get the job,
offers Sam a chance to woo a prospective investor—a Vietnam vet named Jack
(David Rasche)—with the promise of a hefty commission if the
multimillion-dollar deal goes well. The movie is set during the summer of 2008,
mere months before the financial crisis. As one would expect with such a loaded
setting, there is an obvious aura of corruption in this subplot.
All of the things
Mullin avoids in the romance between Sam and Amira are present in these
scenes—the heavy-handed political statements (Jack decries the "cesspool
of self-interest" that is the American economic system), the transparent
use of characters to represent concepts instead of existing as actual people
(Charlie says he's merely a "prisoner" of free-market capitalism),
and an overall sense that Mullin wants to say something Important. The romance
itself seems rife with opportunities to do something similar. After all, Sam
and Amira are forced into close quarters after she is arrested for selling
bootleg DVDs and flees a police officer, which leads to her going into hiding
to avoid deportation. Whatever Mullin could or may want to say about the
politics of this issue is left off the table. It's merely a plot point. If we
want to connect the movie and a critique of immigration policy, that is
entirely on us.
Their story is
better for the absence of sweeping political declarations. It's uncomfortable
but tender in the way of any burgeoning romance. The two characters talk as if
there isn't a cloud of impending doom hanging over them. It culminates in a
scene in which the two—both of them stubbornly wanting to sleep on the
floor—share the bed in Sam's studio apartment. It's pillow talk but without the
sex. They laugh, share some secret information about their lives (Sam wants to
become a stand-up comedian, and Amira says or jokes that she likes to punch
people who deserve it), and test out the waters of getting physical with each
other (which turns into each playfully licking the other's cheek).
entirety of their relationship feels as unencumbered with petty, artificial
conflict as the characters are in that scene. Mullin's only obvious attempt to
address the social and ethnic distinctions between these characters comes
during a late scene at Charlie's engagement party, where the characters
encounter an onslaught of casual and blatant bigotry. A random woman asks
Amira, referring to her hijab, "Do they make you wear that thing?"
One of Charlie's co-workers (Ross Marquand) thinks she looks like Aladdin's
girlfriend. Sam's uncle (Mark Elliot Wilson) goes on a rant linking all Arabs
to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Of course, this aspect of their relationship,
sadly, needs to be addressed, but it comes so late and with such bluntness that
it feels forced.
enough of that feeling throughout the movie to undermine the more natural
elements of the love story. That's especially true of the subplot of Sam's
professional involvement with Charlie, which takes up so much of the movie that
Amira and what she's facing seem like an afterthought. When the eponymous
couple is together, "Amira & Sam" is an earnest and considerate
examination of two people falling in love, but the movie lacks certainty when
handling these characters separately.