Review: In ‘Amira & Sam,’ Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi add charm

For his first feature, writer-director Sean Mullin throws a potentially unwieldy mix of story elements into the rom-com blender: post-military life, immigration, free-market capitalism and showbiz dreams. That “Amira & Sam” manages to be engaging and unforced for a good portion of its running time is a considerable feat.

Chief among its pluses is the low-key warmth of leads Martin Starr and Dina Shihabi.

As two people out of sync with go-go Manhattan — the movie is set in summer 2008, just before Wall Street implodes — they help the story get past its more loaded passages, if not entirely overcome them. And though Mullin isn’t light enough on his feet to make the happy-ending contrivances transporting, Starr (“Silicon Valley,” “Freaks and Geeks”) and newcomer Shihabi are a likable duo whose hate-into-love transition plays out with a down-to-earth sweetness.

Sam is a well-adjusted Army veteran, a novelty in movies. He’s a would-be stand-up comic whose deadpan humor makes him the perfect foil for feisty Amira, niece of his friend Bassam (Laith Nakli), an interpreter for Sam’s unit in Iraq. Having lost her father in the war, Amira distrusts former soldier Sam, but she’s forced to rely on his protection after she lands in trouble with the police — trouble that could prove devastating because she isn’t a U.S. citizen.

While the inevitable thawing of international relations is underway, Sam takes a sales job for his fast-talking hedge-fund manager cousin (Paul Wesley), a stereotypical finance guy but not without compassion. Complications arise, along with overstated xenophobic idiocy, as Mullin stacks the deck. Nothing feels truly at stake, no matter how weighty the risks the characters face, but there are charming moments along the way.



“Amira & Sam”

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1 hours, 27 minutes.

Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles. Also on VOD.