The year is 2008. Bush is almost out of office, economic bubbles are still swelling, and in New York, two unlikely stars cross. Sam (Martin Starr) is an army veteran recently returned from the Middle East. Amira (Dina Shihabi) is an Iraqi immigrant who hawks DVDs on curbsides. They meet when it turns out that Amira’s uncle Bassam (Laith Nakli) is a war buddy of Sam’s. Amira’s distrust of soldiers causes animosity between the two at first, but after the authorities discover her undocumented status, Sam volunteers to keep her holed up in his apartment while Bassam arranges for her to stay with relatives across the country. From there, hostile friction soon produces romantic sparks.
Amira is enamored of traditional Hollywood rom-coms, and Amira & Sam feels like a part of that tradition. Though it has a distinctly contemporary indie romance sensibility, the movie’s pervasive pleasantness places it in good company with the best comfort food the genre has to offer. It feels perfectly suited to be a rental for couples doing a stay-in date night for years to come. Calling a movie a “solid rental” generally carries a derisive tinge, but it’s honestly meant here in the best sense.
Starr and Shihabi have decent chemistry, but for the most part, they shine when they’re apart. Starr makes Sam’s trouble readjusting to peace subtle but felt, and he’s best in concert with fellow vets or his douchebag cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley). The fiery Amira is estranged from certain aspects of her culture, which puts her in conflict with fellow immigrants — she’ll wear a hijab in public along with bared shoulders and legs. The idea is that these two outcasts find solace in one another (it’s even in the tagline on the poster), but the film doesn’t make this connection too tangible. The weakness of the indie rom-com standard is the conviction that some banter and a few “big” moments are all that’s required to sell a love story, but that’s not the case.
Despite the natural tension created by the main characters’ backgrounds, the story all but ignores the thematic possibilities of a white American soldier and an Iraqi national falling for one another. Oddly, the initial standoffishness between the duo stems entirely from Amira’s instinctive hostility to the military. But Sam is a model soldier (he speaks Arabic!), so she comes off as unreasonable, even though her attitude would be more than a little justified, given her history. It’s not entirely clear whether the movie is steering away from anything overtly political or trying to be mildly political for flavor. That Charlie has made a fortune in hedge funds on Wall Street and is trying to tempt Sam into the business seems to suggest the latter.
Amira & Sam is eminently pleasant, a gentle ride that occasionally delivers some good-natured laughs. If you’re looking for good date night material, watch it on VOD, or in a theater if it’s showing near you.