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Cherien Davis (Photo by Jeff Vespa/WireImage/Getty Images)

An American story

Movies | Uplifting Amreeka works as both education and entertainment

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

Difficult to watch, wonderful to behold, and ultimately uplifting, Cherien Dabis' debut feature Amreeka chronicles the extremely difficult life of Muna Farah (Nisreen Faour), a Palestinian woman who, with her son Fadi, emigrates to America in search of a better life.

It's hard to imagine a more American story, but most people fortunate enough to be U.S. natives will find the warm, funny film an education as well as an entertainment. Muna and Fadi (Melkar Muallem), for example, are Christians-residents of occupied Bethlehem who are constantly bullied by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints. As Fadi grows up, Muna sees that he needs to live out his youth in a place where he won't be an easy target.

If the scene of a defenseless teenager being hassled by an armed soldier doesn't make your blood boil, don't worry-Dabis has plenty of indignities for her characters to withstand in small-town Illinois, where they go to live with their cousins. Muna's English may be good, for example, but it's not nearly good enough to land her the banking job she wants, so she ends up at White Castle. And cousin Nabeel Halaby (Yussuf Abu-Warda) is a doctor, but his practice is waning-people are afraid of Arabs, no matter what their beliefs are.

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It makes sense, then, that Dabis chooses to avoid the religious aspects of her characters' lives. Her point seems to be that even if the locals are discriminating against the Halabys because they think they're Muslims, the mistake can hardly be called an honest one. In fact, Dabis lets all of her ironies sit quietly: The character most genuinely interested in Muna is the Jewish administrator at her son's school, but his ethnicity is only mentioned once.

The movie is rated PG-13 for some drug use and swearing, which is mostly used to illustrate Fadi's distance from his loving mother. And the family's love is the center of the film-the thing that makes hardship worth overcoming and, ultimately, life worth living.

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