Something In The Air
A semi-autobiographical drama from director Olivier Assayas set in 1970s Paris
Fish-out-of-water comedy about a Palestinian single mother and her son who start a new life in rural Illinois
Comedy doesn't come much more well-intentioned than this. The opening fifteen minutes of Amreeka swiftly establish the mounting day-to-day strains of life in Ramallah for Palestinian single mother Muna: she's faced with the indignity of bumping into her ex-husband and new girlfriend doing the shopping, endures the constant haranguing of her ailing mother at home - not to mention having to battle through two hours of checkpoints and diversions to achieve what should be a 15-minute commute every time she steps outside. Yet, minutes later, Muna and her teenage son Fadi are swept off to their new life with Muna's sister Raghda (Hiam Abass) in rural Illinois, and writer-director Cherien Dabis is eking comic mileage out of a misunderstanding between Muna and an airport customs official regarding the various senses of the noun 'occupation' in the English language.
In its broadest terms, neither the comedy nor the narrative developments - Fadi inevitably suffers racist bullying at school, and former bank employee Muna is forced to take a job flipping burgers alongside local spotty teens - stray beyond standard fish-out-of-water conventions. Where the film strikes a chord is not in its observations of how Muna and Fadi are (or aren't) accepted into their new wider community, though, but in how cultural and generational differences can drive wedges closer to home.
Muna's niece Salma (a reliably sparky Alia Shawkat), having grown up in Illinois, considers herself to be American, which differs somewhat with her mother's reckoning: 'As long as you live in this house, you live in Palestine!' Dabis, herself a child of Palestinian and Jordanian parents who grew up in Ohio, shows she has no trouble conveying how much can get lost in translation even between mother and daughter. 'What does delusional mean?', a non-plussed Muna asks, trying to decode Salma's teen strop. 'How should I know?', Raghda replies.
Enjoyable but uneven, Amreeka is an unlikely comic take on the plight of the displaced, at home and abroad.
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