After her husband leaves her, Muna (Faour) is struggling to raise her teen son Fadi (Muallem) in the West Bank, fighting through checkpoints and taking long detours around the Israeli wall to get to work. So when she wins the US Green Card lottery, she and Fadi head to live with her sister Raghda (Abbass) and her family outside Chicago. But the adjustment isn't easy for either of them, as they face a new kind of oppression but also find friends in surprising places.
Meanwhile, Raghda starts thinking she wants to move back to Palestine.
The opening scenes buzz with the chaos of life for this non-religious family in an increasingly restrictive society. By contrast, when they reach the Midwest, the expansive silence is a huge contrast. But Muna is sure that "it's better to live as immigrants in a strange country than as prisoners in ours", so she does everything she can to make it work. Even as she runs into deep obstacles everywhere she turns, eventually taking a job serving burgers at White Castle despite her qualifications and experience as an accountant.
Even with such a serious topic, the film maintains a bright, often comical tone. At immigration, when asked, "Occupation?", Muna says, matter-of-factly, "Yes". These are lively people bursting with personality, and both Faour and Abbas find real resonance in their roles. Abbas is especially engaging as a woman who is disillusioned by the American dream but doesn't have a home to go back to. And Muallem is also terrific as a young guy facing both the standard new-school issues as well as rampant peer pressure and prejudice, taken under the wing of his hilarious cousin Salma (Shawkat).
As the film progresses, there are a couple of clunky plot points that force various confrontations and revelations, but the film remains firmly character-based, which makes both the story and the issues much more personal and resonant. And along the way, Dabis' script touches on some extremely emotional themes as well as some uncomfortable truths about Western society.
And in the end, it delivers its message about tolerance and diversity with grace and humour. A small but extremely important gem of a film.
Run time: 96 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 17th June 2009
Box Office USA: $0.4M
Distributed by: National Geographic
Production compaines: First Generation Films, Alcina Pictures, Buffalo Gal Pictures, Levantine Entertainment, Eagle Vision Media Group, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, Manitoba Film & Music, Maximum Film International, National Geographic Entertainment, R.A. Abdoo & Co., Rotana Studios, Showtime Arabia, Violet Jabara Foundation
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 61 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Cherien Dabis
Producer: Paul Barkin, Christina Piovesan
Screenwriter: Cherien Dabis
Starring: Nisreen Faour as Muna Farah, Melkar Muallem as Fadi Farah, Hiam Abbass as Raghda Halaby, Alia Shawkat as Salma Halaby, Jenna Kawar as Rana Halaby, Joseph Ziegler as Stan Novatski, Yussuf Abu-Warda as Nabeel Halaby, Selena Haddad as Lamis Halaby, Amer Hlehel as Samer, Suheila Muallem as Jamie, Brodie Sanderson as Matt, Andrew Sannie as James, Daniel Boiteau as Mike, Jeff Button as Jason, Miriam Smith as Bank Employee
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