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Review: Amira & Sam Is This Year’s Smart Valentine’s Day Movie

Martin Starr takes the Everyman reigns from Tom Hanks.

Samandamira3The romantic movie options in theaters this upcoming Valentine’s Day are a pretty weak lot. With the exception of the so-bad-it’s-good Jupiter Ascending and abuse-glorifying 50 Shades of Grey, studios aren’t exactly expecting many people to get into the mood for love at the movies this year. But if you do want to see a little romance this Valentine’s Day, you might have to seek out some of the films in limited release – like Amira & Sam, one of the best rom-coms in some time.

When I call this a rom-com, I don’t mean it’s one of those comedies that treats romance as an afterthought. This is a rom-com in the tradition of Sleepless in Seattle, Marty, or my personal favorite romantic comedy, Crossing Delancy. There’s nothing cynical behind the movie, and the romance feels completely sincere. Better yet, the script is whip smart, with witty dialogue and two instantly likable leads. Best of all, the movie embraces its rom-com genre without pandering to the genre lovers the way the studio movies feel they have to. Anyone who decries rom-coms as a genre without merit or as nothing but “chick flicks” should be shown this movie (and then bopped on the head for using that term). This is a prime example of a film which can “elevate” its genre to create something original.

One of the big positives of this film is that, while staying within its traditional genre, the film utilizes some very timely elements. Sam (Martin Starr) is a returning veteran trying to start his life as a civilian, but doesn’t feel much of a connection to the world to which he’s returned. He won’t accept disability despite offers, and he’s unnerved when asked to present himself as a veteran at work to get on the good side of clients. His one true friend is Bassam (Laith Nakli), the Saudi translator who worked with him. Bassam is back in New York with his niece Amira (newcomer Dina Shihabi), and illegal alien who knows that there is no future for her in her home country if sent back – but there also seems little opportunity for her in America as an illegal. She stands on the street trying to sell bootleg DVDs until she is caught by cops who notice her fake ID.

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Sam is asked to protect Amira by letting her stay at his apartment, a request he takes on without question or complaint. Sam likes Amira, more than she likes him, and wants to help his friends, and his eager protectiveness starts to win Amira over slowly. But the movie never becomes a case of Cinderella and Prince Charming. For one, Shihabi is an independent, opinionated woman who is quick to speak her mind – she doesn’t play the role of a damsel in distress. And her Prince Charming does not see himself as the hero, and does what he does because out of a sense of personal morality and desire to be a decent human being. That decency is what makes Amira fall for him, and their slow, realistic courtship is completely winning.

I’ll be honest and say that most of the scenes with Paul Wesley’s character Charlie, (Sam’s brother who wants him to join his company) just don’t work; but they certainly don’t derail the film, because they’re secondary to the romance. Starr and Shahabi have incredible chemistry together and really sell the romance from start to finish. I hope this is only the start of Shahabi’s career, and, like Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s breakthrough last year, hope to see her cast in a range of films that use her charms and intelligence as well as her ethnicity. The usually-comic Starr has never been better than he is as Sam, who uses his oddities as shading for his everyman character. Writer/director Sean Mullin, has really captured a bit of romantic magic in this film with them, and for every convention of the genre he uses, he throws in something unexpected…including an unpredictable, emotional ending.

Check out Amira & Sam in limited release or on VOD.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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