I saw Amreeka (Cherien Dabis, 2008) a couple of weeks ago at the Travelling Film Festival in Wollongong. It was a bit of a self-imposed homework assignment. In a piece about seeing the Algerian film Masquerades at the TFF for Sydney Film Festival’s official blog, I wrote that Amreeka was next on my list of films to see. I did so more to promote interest in Middle Eastern films in Australia than out of any specific passion for this title. And when I got up on the day and pondered a two-hour train ride just to see a film, I wondered if it would be worthwhile. But I thought I should keep my given word.

Whatever my motives or concerns, it turns out I was rewarded for my trouble by a wonderful film. Portraying the struggles of a Palestinian woman and her son who migrate to suburban Illinois, it’s an impressive balance of the political and the personal, realism and enjoyable storytelling. It’s weighty, but also funny and heartwarming, and achieves all of this honestly.

Muna (Nisreen Faour) is a divorced bank clerk living in Bethlehem. Every day she and her teenage son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) have to pass through a checkpoint on the Israeli security barrier to get home from work and school. It takes hours, and it’s often harrowing. As if by accident she finds out she qualifies for an American visa. Muna is reluctant to leave her mother and her home, troubled as it is, and has no real curiosity about America. But her precocious son convinces her it’s an opportunity they’d be foolish to pass up, especially as it could lead to a good education for him. Moreover they have family to stay with in Illinois. So off they go.

Amreeka is the Arabic word for America; and it’s fascinating how the film, establishing its characters’ lives in Palestine in a few richly detailed scenes, depicts their migration one step at a time in a way that makes the States seem foreign. There are awkward moments with TSA guards at the airport, whose American accents seem harsh and unmusical. We see the skyline of Chicago and the suburbs, with their big lawns and SUVs, and they seem new to us. It’s dark and it’s cold — there’s a nice moment when Muna puts her hand out the window of her sister’s SUV to feel snow for the first time. When Muna takes Fadi to his first day at school, and when she applies for work, we feel their anxiety and alienation.

Things don’t go well for them. The story is set just at the start of the Iraq war in 2003, and in the resulting anti-Arab atmosphere there are weird stares from strangers at the grocery store and bad attitudes at school. They don’t have much money; Muna can’t find a job at a bank, but gets work at the local White Castle, and hides it from her family out of shame.

Writer/director Dabis, an American with Palestinian and Jordanian parents, makes all of this work in a very confident debut feature. A relaxed, naturalistic tone predominates for most of the film; Dabis lets the characters interact, be themselves — and be funny too. But she wields a more expressionist touch at key moments to potent effect. In particular, the early scenes of Muna making her way through the West Bank security checkpoint have a detached, hazy feeling — the harsh sunlight filtered through the dirty windshield, the ugly concrete of the barrier, the grimacing troopers, all seem like a bad dream. Later, when Muna slips and falls at the White Castle, there’s a subjective shot of the acoustic ceiling tiles she’s staring at while lying on the floor. It’s a little bit of postmodern lyricism worthy of Sofia Coppola. Likewise she finds subtle ways to make this wintry suburban world visually interesting; one of Muna’s young coworkers at White Castle has blue hair to match his blue uniform and the blue interiors of the restaurant.

There are times — especially in some of the scenes in Fadi’s high school — when the film falls into predictable patterns and feels a little made-for-TV. But overall Dabis does a great job of keeping things fresh and letting things develop organically while still being entertaining.

Nisreen Faour’s debut performance as Muna is really something, naturalistic yet charismatic. With her pudgy frame and big, melancholy brown eyes, she carries the film with sweet-natured aplomb. Humble, unassuming, and a little hapless, her character ends up in bad situations but finds reserves of strength and wit. Some of the film’s best moments are when she confronts difficult people with common sense and frank emotion.

Muna is not naïve about the marginalization her family faces, but has her own ways of dealing with it, refusing to give in to despair. At one point, Fadi, frustrated at school, tries to convince his mom that moving to America has been a mistake. “This place sucks!” he blurts out. “So what?” she replies. “Every place sucks.”

The film seems to take its attitude from its stolid heroine. It’s difficult to qualify Amreeka as a political film. There are grim reminders of the violence and unfairness of life on the West Bank, and Palestinian anger and determination for change are portrayed directly. Yet we’re also treated to some straight-up comedy — as when Muna schemes to make cash selling shady weight-loss beverages obtained via the internet — and plenty more unforced warmth and good humor. In one of my favorite scenes, Muna shows her blue-haired colleague how to fry falafel, and serves it to him on a White Castle bun.

Amreeka has a light touch and heaviness in its heart. It’s a very satisfying and life-affirming blend, and I’d like to see more films like it.

Click here for another piece about the West Bank security barrier as depicted in Amreeka and attacked by Banksy.