Amreeka is the Arabic word for America. The movie of that title — a success at Sundance, and winner of the coveted critics' prize at the Directors' Fortnight in Cannes — opens on the West Bank, where Muna, a divorced Palestinian woman, works at a bank and lives with a difficult mother who doesn't hesitate to criticize her weight.
It's a comfortable middle-class existence — how often do we see that side of Palestinian life? — but when a U.S. Green Card unexpectedly comes through for Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her 16-year-old son Fadi (Melkar Muallem), they end up making their uncertain way through U.S. Customs, where an agent's casual query of "Occupation?" elicits an unexpectedly funny response.
Shopping around: In Amreeka, Palestinian immigrant Muna (Nisreen Faour, left) learns how to negotiate the American Midwest with a little help from her sister (Hiam Abbass).
Muna and her son end up staying with her sister Raghda (the great Palestinian actress Hiam Abbass), who's been living in suburban Illinois. Circumstances there put Muna in desperate need of work of any kind — but despite her experience, no local bank wants to hire her. The only job she can get is in fast food.
As Muna's adventures at White Castle (and the supermarket) unfold, Amreeka balances a serious eye with a feeling for warm and affectionate human comedy. Writer-director Cherien Dabis grew up in the Midwest, the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother, and that background has helped her understand that immigration sagas are at once the saddest, the happiest and the most quintessentially American of stories.
Amreeka moves back and forth between what happens to Muna in her life and the difficulties her son faces in his. America is more than they bargained for, as it always is, and while this film allows problems to recede, it does not glibly insist they've gone away.
It is true, as a character says, that "a tree pulled out by its roots and placed elsewhere, it doesn't grow." What Dabis and her big-hearted film dare to suggest is that if anyone can turn that situation around, it's Muna.