There are things about american cinema to be extremely critical of. Much in the way Nashville has lost the thread of country music, Hollywood has misplaced what originally made it so great. We get it Hollywood. You're an industry and need to make money. You've become a blockbusting conveyer belting movie factory. Having an industry rooted in art is always a challenge. In America the bottom line comes first. Studios and their formulas giving the masses what they want in a modern movie. Then there are those who can navigate the studio waters successfully. Nibbling at big money, allowing them to afford the machinery that can produce the movie gems that we expect and want while maintaining a unique voice. The Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and David Lynch are great examples but the list is surprisingly short when you're talking about those consistently attempting something fresh. The A-lister’s of independent American cinema as it were. As you drop down to the next level of indie you get a shorter list of folks most multiplex viewers have rarely heard of but who are just as good. (Jim Jarmusch, the Duplass Brothers and Richard Linklater, etc...) These films and filmmakers are by no way second because of talent or the finished product but only in name recognition and access to big money. If you drop down one more level, you get to the nitty gritty of true indie films This third level in my made up hierarchy of indie is where you get the new full length feature filmmakers and/or the real outsiders.
"Starving artists" are powerful storytellers with fresh ideas no matter the medium. If a filmmaker can get through the relentless day after day fight, where every penny is precious, then they truly are hungry for something. Sean Mullin's first feature, Amira & Sam, is a well crafted love story that has a lot to say. One of the best things about this kind of love story is that it helps the proverbial medicine go down. Mullin is serving up a healthy dose and it's not only welcomed but needed in the acrimonious culture of today. Sam, played by Martin Starr, is an American solder returning to New York after a deployment in Iraq. Unlike most vets in war movies, Starr is not the typical powder keg suffering any number of war related issues mental and/or physical. By all accounts Sam seems to have made it though Iraq undamaged and it’s the world around him that is out of balance. It's the people he encounters who are unable to make sense of the many issues that our nation is struggling with. Rising narcissism, corporate greed, and the treatment of Middle Eastern people and islamic culture in a post 9/11 world are main focus points. After some issues with his new civilian job, Sam goes to visit his cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) who employs him but wants to use him as bait to lure wealthy veterans out of their money. Here Mullin starts weaving Wall Street's white collar gluttony with it’s piggishness to do what ever it deems necessary in the name of greed. Originally, it felt like this was taking the movie in an unnecessary direction, subconsciously basing years of Hollywood formulas and the typical wall street antagonist. Mullin ties it in nicely by using Charlie tactfully.
While looking for Bassam (Laith Nakli), an Iraqi translator from his unit, Sam meets Bassam’s niece Amira played by newcomer Dina Shihabi. Sam and Bassam reconnect and share memories under the watchful and disapproving eye of Amira. The chemistry of the two leads becomes immediately apparent and increases as they verbally spar with each other. Amira is in the United States illegally and soon finds herself in trouble. Bassam asks Sam for help and the couple are thrown together and slowly get to know each other. A favorite scene includes an incredibly long take, shot from above in Sam's apartment. The two are laying next to each other and the tension of the budding attraction is very present. They begin to open up and share with each other for the first time. The scene's extremely well written dialogue is delivered fantastically by Starr and Shihabi. In 20 years it wouldn't be surprising if people remember this film with it's great performances and touching but playfully fun dialogue. The subplots give depth to the couple, as well as gives us a better understanding to the complex nature of two humans in love. That being said, Paul Wesley’s performance was a little disappointing. There were scenes where he seemed to turn it up or dial it back. I’m not sure which one. He was as good as the rest of the cast, just... inconsistent. Then again, 10 million Vampire Diaries fans can't be wrong. Amira and Sam has a lot to say and balances it's message and emotions well.
A footnote about writer/director Mullin and three of his previous shorts which are all are soldier based (a theme obviously close to Mullin's heart). 2006's Sadiq, 2004's The 14th Morning are two moving pieces of work. 2005's Man is a Bridge, which was very similar to A&S, is much more autobiographical and emotional with a suicide component. One of Mullin’s strengths is the portrayal of modern American soldiers in a light that is sorely needed. A light that illuminates the humanity of war and the people directly involved in a complex three dimensional way. As a nation in a period of war that's lasted longer than any other in our history, it's having an effect. Understanding present day veterans is critical as the recovery and consequences of our middle east deployments last with us for far to long. Art is designed to make you feel an emotional response. Amira and Sam gives us peek into a world that is foreign to some and helps remind us of the space between the rock and the hard place. A space anyone can easily find themselves in.
review by Jerry Wheat @bobotripple