The tale of the soldier returning home from war is a classic for a reason: it is dramatic gold. There is not only something incredibly powerful in the psychological change that comes with witnessed horrors, and storytellers have spent generations in fiction exploring that idea. Amira & Sam, the feature debut of writer/director Sean Mullin, is the latest big-screen interpretation of this kind of story, but it’s also one that impressively throws convention to the wind. It’s not another plot about a PTSD-affected warrior adjusting to life back home, but instead a rather sweet love story following two characters who have seen war alter their perspective on the world.
Set back in 2008, the film begins as Sam (Martin Starr), an army veteran, finds himself back in New York City after having spent most of the last decade fighting in the Middle East. He works to adjust to civilian life, getting a menial job and a small apartment, but where things start to really change is when he meets Amira (Dina Shihabi), the niece of translator with whom Sam served during the war. While there is a good deal of antagonism between them at first – as Amira’s brother was killed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq – they find themselves thrust together after Amira gets herself in trouble with the police and must hide out at Sam’s place until her uncle returns from a trip.
While Sam simultaneously struggles ethically with his Wall Street broker cousin (Paul Wesley) – who wants to exploit his relative’s status as a veteran to the fullest extent possible – he grows a tighter connection with his new fugitive roommate, and a romance begins to blossom.
In case the title didn’t really give it away, the chemistry and relationship between Amira and Sam is what sells the film, and Sean Mullin does a great job making unexpected but terrific choices in casting the leads. Martin Starr may forever in our hearts be the bespectacled nerdiest-of-the-nerds Bill Haverchuck from the brilliant Freaks and Geeks , but he puts on a superb performance here that serves as an interesting gear change for him as an actor. Mullin does play to Starr’s strengths as a comedian through the story -- as Sam has aspirations of being a stand-up comic and has more than a few great dry, witty moments. But what ultimately stands out is just how well he accesses the character’s more contemplative and dramatic moments.
Like her co-star, newcomer Dina Shihabi also has a really wonderful presence in the film that goes beyond just the titular relationship. When we first meet Amira in the story, the actress gives her character a meaningful undercurrent of frustration with her life and the outer world, but as the story progresses there’s a delicate emotional shift that Shihabi plays perfectly. It’s enjoyable watching her start tearing down her emotional barriers with Sam, and transform her scowl into a beautiful smile.
It’s the characters and performances that drive them that make Amira & Sam and engaging and emotional film, but there are also significant structural issues in the story – largely contained in the first and third acts. Between Sam’s adjustment to post-military life, the establishment of his relationship with his cousin, the introduction of Amira, and the plot’s inciting incident, there is a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid, and it takes a while for things to really get going. This is followed up with a great second act that build’s the movie’s central relationship – but then it just sort of peters out as it reaches its conclusion. It’s not that it’s not satisfying, and these issues don’t torpedo the film, but it does feel messy.
With Amira & Sam, Sean Mullin set out to make a different kind of post-war film - one that tells both a lovely romantic story and has something to say about the way perspective on the world can change. With some great character work and performances, and despite some key issues that goal has been achieved in enjoyable and entertaining fashion, and makes the movie one worth seeking out.