By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 02, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

As Muna, a single Palestinian woman plunked down in small-town Illinois with her teenage son in Amreeka, the radiant, zaftig Nisreen Faour exudes an irresistible sweetness even when Muna’s life is sour. After enduring the hassles and indignities of the West Bank, mother and son happily imagine a freer future in Amreeka (that’s Arabic for ”America”). They find encouragement and temporary housing from Muna’s Stateside sister (elegant Hiam Abbass from The Visitor) and doctor ? brother-in-law (Yussef Abu Warda). But the U.S. has just invaded Iraq. And the usual challenges of immigrant adjustment are compounded by the fears and prejudices of locals. (Abu Warda’s doctor is losing patients — as filmmaker Cherien Dabis has said her own Ohio-based Palestinian physician father did at the time.) Only with perseverance does Muna, a banking professional, get a job — running the fryer and swabbing floors at White Castle. Meanwhile, her son (Melkar Muallem) faces his own hazing in public high school.

Amreeka is strategically inviting and carefully mild even when making unsubtle points about Palestinian suffering and American insensitivity. Dramatic conflicts resolve, in the end, with the telltale brightness of a script that’s been through the Sundance Lab’s rinse cycle. But the good ? humor, generosity, and love Dabis bestows on her characters in this assured first feature are uniquely hers — the mark of a talent to watch. A?

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