IR Review: Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi Charm in ‘Amira & Sam’

by: Jay Carlson

Sometimes watching independent films can feel like homework, but every once in a while one comes out of nowhere and surprises me. Initially I pushed off watching Amira & Sam, as I was trying to cram in as many year-end awards season films as possible for my Top Ten of 2014 list (which still isn’t quite complete). I really wanted to watch it, as I had been intrigued by the trailer and had only heard good things about it, but I kept finding excuses not to put it on.

I should have made time sooner because Amira & Sam is one of those films that really surprised me.

The film stars Martin Starr as Sam Seneca, a clean cut Marine who is recently back stateside after multiple tours of duty overseas. In a refreshing twist Starr’s Marine is not one of the typical veteran soldier stereotypes that we regularly see portrayed in film. You know the ones, the soldier twitchy with PTSD, or the soldier who is unable to fit back in with society, haunted by the atrocities of war. Obviously, these are real issues that exist for many soldiers, war is terrible and the things many soldiers see and do would probably have an impact on even the strongest psyche, but not all soldiers come home in that state. Sam is one of these soldiers. He’s a regular guy who happened to have been a soldier, and has adjusted back to civilian life without any real problems. He even has aspirations of stand-up comedy.

Sam comes to meet Amira through her uncle, Bassam, (who served as a translator to Sam’s unit overseas) when he comes calling on his old friend early on in the film. Amira, makes it clear that she doesn’t like nor trust soldiers. After an unfortunate run in with the authorities, Amira is forced to lay low at Sam’s place. Of course, as the two begin to spend more time together, Amira lets Sam in and the sparks begin to fly.

Starr is terrific as Sam, a role that challenges us to see a new facets of him as an actor. Most would recognize Starr from the comedic roles that he’s been owning for years, first as Bill Haverchuck in Freaks and Geeks, and later on in Knocked up and Party Down, and most recently as a Satanist/ computer programmer in HBO’s hilarious Silicon Valley. Make no mistake though, this is not a complete departure for Starr, who has given us glimpses of his non comedic potential in films like The Lifeguard and Greg Mottola’s criminally underrated Adventureland.

Equally terrific was relative unknown Dina Shihabi, who manages to not just hold her own, but elevates each scene that she shares with Starr. Shahibi plays Amira with a very natural vulnerability lurking just underneath her tough exterior, infuriating you one minute and then charming the hell out of you the next.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Laith Nakli as Amira’s uncle Bassam. Bassam is the heart of the film thanks to a pitch perfect performance by Nakli. By the end of the film, you find he’s willing to do anything to protect his niece.

Paul Wesley, as Sam’s exploitive Gordon Gekko-esque cousin Charlie, manages to infuse some humanity in a role that some might consder to be the villain of the film.

Director Sean Mullin manages to twist together a very effective, albeit unconventional, romantic comedy with a spot-on commentary of how veterans are sometimes exploited in American society. Mullin deftly manages to blend genres successfully tempering each scene with just the right tone.

I waited too long to sit down and watch Amira & Sam, don’t make the same mistake.

To check theater listings or to see VOD options click HERE.

Also, for all of our Massachusetts readers, Director Sean Mullin will be bringing the film to CinemaSalem for a special screening and Q&A on 2/26! For tickets and more information visit CinemaSalem’s Website HERE