Romantic comedy “Amira & Sam” plays for Valentine’s Day

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Photo courtesy Rotten Tomatoes

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society brings an offbeat romantic comedy to the screen for Valentine’s Day, Saturday, Feb. 14. A military veteran and an Iraqi immigrant make the unlikely couple whose budding romance taps into a number of current social issues, including free-market capitalism and racism as well as immigration and veterans’ postwar re-entry.

Part of what makes Amira & Sam work as well as it does is the background brought and applied by director Sean Mullin, which includes a West Point degree and experience doing standup comedy. Sam, played with low-key, spot-on timing by Martin Starr of Silicon Valley and Freaks and Geeks fame, is fresh from multiple Middle East tours as a Green Beret. He finds himself adrift in New York, living in Staten Island and trying out various jobs, until he hooks up with Bassam (Laith Nakli), the Iraqi ex-interpreter he befriended overseas. Bassam is sheltering his niece Amira (Dina Shihabi), and hostile sparks fly from the start between feisty Amira and Sam. Also an interpreter, Amira’s father died as a result of his work for the American military, which explains Amira’s hostility to American soldiers.

No one quite fits the anticipated stereotypes for such an odd ethnic and social mix. Amira dutifully wears a hijab, but her inappropriate décolletage incurs the wrath of another Muslim woman pedestrian, who calls her disgusting. Peddling pirated DVDs on Canal Street in Manhattan, Amira’s a spunky, outspoken combination of traditional Muslim and new American cultural values. Sam may seem like a laid-back version of your average middle American, but he makes a point of letting people like a Veteran’s Administration clerk know he made it through his tours of duty unscathed, both mentally and physically. Although he fails at first as a standup comedian, he doesn’t give up, and he’s not afraid to take action against lewd behavior, like a drunken 20-something relieving himself in front of the building where Sam’s working as a doorman.

Credible or not, circumstances work to push Amira and Sam together. After Amira runs away to avoid arrest for selling pirated DVDs and other offenses, Bassam persuades Sam to house her in his Staten Island flat until he can move with his niece to Michigan. Amira’s icy demeanor toward Sam begins to melt when he takes her for a sail in his rich uncle’s boat, then leaves her at the helm while he goes for a dip. In much the fashion of the Clark Gable–Claudette Colbert classic It Happened One Night, Amira and Sam end up pristinely sleeping together in Sam’s bachelor quarters, and the two gradually make friends. Can romance be far behind?

Meanwhile, Sam’s cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley), a hedge fund trader, talks him into helping land a big account with another veteran. But the shady world of high finance does not prove a very good fit for Sam, who gets into a fight at his cousin’s engagement party when racist slurs against Amira fly. Not one to sit out a good fight on the sidelines, Amira manages to punch Charlie’s fiancée Claire, who files charges against her. Once Amira is arrested, deportation looms. Can this unlikely couple find a way to live happily ever after? Join the audience at the Film Center to find out.

Amira & Sam, Saturday, Feb. 14, 7:30 pm at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, Tisbury Marketplace, Vineyard Haven. For information and tickets, see mvfilmsociety.com.