Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi in Amira & Sam (Drafthouse Films)

Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi in Amira & Sam (Drafthouse Films)

Written and Directed by Sean Mullin
Produced by Terry Leonard, Erich Lochner, and Matt Miller
Released by Drafthouse Films
USA. 89 min. Not rated
With Martin Starr, Dina Shihabi, Laith Nakli, and Paul Wesley

As American Sniper continues to reign supreme at the box office this week, much is being written about the way in which war and veterans are viewed in this country. Director and writer Sean Mullin’s Amira & Sam takes a quieter, but effective, look at the experience of a modern-day veteran. The film does not depict the war overseas, but rather one young soldier’s return to daily life in New York City and its surprising complications.

It’s July 2008, and army vet Sam (Martin Starr) easily adjusts to life back in the city. Unlike other narratives featuring posttraumatic stress disorder, Sam seems completely fine on his return home. He refuses to apply for disability, and he’s eager to start working again. Unfortunately, it’s a thankless job as a security guard for a high-rise. He boss is forced to fire him after Sam locks some discourteous visitors in the elevator. After a visit to his cousin, Charlie (Paul Wesley), a big shot finance guy, Sam finds work again. Charlie, though, is only interested in using Sam’s veteran status and charming personality to recruit wealthy Vietnam veteran businessmen. This sits uneasy with Sam. It’s also never a job he saw himself having; his dream is to be a stand-up comedian, which he has attempted once, but bombed.

Sam’s life is made more complicated when he searches out his old army buddy, Iraqi translator Bassam (Laith Nakli). After some traumatic experiences in the war, Sam made a promise to reach out to Bassam in the States. Bassam lives with his niece, Amira (Dina Shihabi). She is, at first, completely repelled by Sam, especially his military status. While selling DVDs on the streets of New York, Amira is approached by a cop. She’s arrested for multiple offenses, most significantly for her fake ID. Afraid of deportation, Amira evades the cop and goes on the run. As a favor to Bassam, who is away on a job, Sam allows Amira to stay in his apartment until Bassam can move her to family members in Michigan. Despite their differences, Amira and Sam quickly develop a friendship, which then quickly turns romantic.

Martin Starr plays Sam with such good-natured awkwardness it’s impossible not to like him. He’s hell-bent on making Amira laugh and relax through jokes and stories. Dina Shihabi is a good match for Starr’s sweetness: feisty, quick to anger, and fiercely protective. As Sam begins to charm her, Amira’s soft side comes through, especially her fondness for American romantic comedies. Amira & Sam, of course, is itself a romcom, though perhaps one with serious political implications.

This sweet love story is challenged by Sam’s work environment. Paul Wesley’s Charlie is so forcefully ambitious that early on it’s clear Sam should resist joining up with him. Sam’s not even that interested in the money, so it’s hard to see why he would put up with Charlie’s clear manipulation of his veteran status. Things become even more problematic at the climax when Sam brings Amira to Charlie’s engagement party, right in the thick of business dealings.

Big issues of veterans’ postwar experience as well as racism and immigration are at the heart of what could be construed as a simple love story. As writer/director Sean Mullins has stated about his film, it’s about what happens when a veteran comes home completely fine, but America has lost its mind (which is a line from Sam’s stand-up act). It’s an interesting concept, but it only comes through in a few moments, mostly involving Charlie’s power hungry business. As a moving modern love story, however, Amira & Sam succeeds.