In its basic outline, this first feature from Arab-American writer-director Cherien Dabis sounds like a collection of hoary coming-to-America clichés: Upon arriving in suburban Illinois, Palestinian single mom Muna (the excellent Nisreen Faour) and her 16-year-old son Fadi (Melka Muallem) move in with Muna’s sister and soon encounter the face of anti-Muslim discrimination at every turn. That they aren’t Muslims hardly matters. All that matters is that they look the part. Like Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, to which it will surely be compared, Dabis’ film aspires to show the plight of Arab people living in the U.S. in the Homeland Security era. But Amreeka (which premiered in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and more recently screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes) tells its story from the inside out, without want or need of a white protagonist to serve as the audience’s surrogate, and with real, three-dimensional characters instead of blunt ideological instruments. At the heart of Amreeka beats an irresolvable conundrum: that a nation founded by immigrants can be so narrow-mindedly conformist. Yet, given every opportunity for self-pitying ACLU hand-wringing, Dabis keeps the film’s tone buoyant and light, making a fine comedy of deception out of Muna’s efforts to convince her family she actually works in a bank (instead of a White Castle), and laying the groundwork for a gentle, not-quite romance between Muna and the Jewish principal of Fadi’s school. When most filmmakers want to say something important about cultural conflicts, they labor to bring tears to our eyes. Dabis, by contrast, makes us laugh at ourselves and, in turn, each other. (Regent, Sat., June 27, 7 p.m.)
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