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Review: 'Amreeka'

A charming, humorous spin on the classic immigrant story, as a Palestinian mother negotiates small-town America with her teenage son.

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If movies are anything to go by, the classic American immigrant experience is about 80 percent uniform, regardless of the country of origin. But, oh, how that other 20 percent can make a difference! Case in point: Cherien Dabis's debut feature, "Amreeka."

Muna (Nisreen Faour) is a divorced, 30-something Palestinian, living in the West Bank and scraping by on her salary as a bank clerk, while looking after her teenage son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), whose private-school tuition strains her budget. One day a letter arrives, announcing an opportunity to move to America. (The press notes explain it's a green card, but the film itself is irritatingly unclear on the point.)

There are a lot of reasons for Muna to leave, most of them mundane and universal. Fadi is an A student and wants to go to a top-tier college someday; and – talk about cultural universality – Muna's live-in mom might as well be a classic Jewish mother, alternately urging her to eat and criticizing her for being too round.

But there are also some pretty obvious reasons why a Palestinian in particular would want to decamp, and the film quickly conveys the degradation – and, almost more compellingly, the unbelievable inconvenience – of living in occupied territory. And, when Fadi, full of adolescent impatience, gets a tiny bit sassy with an Israeli checkpoint guard, the wisdom of leaving becomes even clearer.

Luckily, Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abbass) long ago settled in a small town in Illinois, together with her husband (Yussef Abu Warda), a successful doctor. Unluckily, through a misunderstanding, Muna manages to lose her life savings while going through immigration at O'Hare International Airport. (In one of her few unlikable moments, Muna unfairly blames Fadi for the loss.)

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