Hesham Issawi’s feature bow threatens to totter under the weight of its timely message as it examines the plight of Arab-Americans in post 9/11 Los Angeles. But with a strong cast, headlined by co-scripter Sayed Badreya as an Egyptian man trying to avoid the kind of political polarization increasingly foisted upon him and his friends and family, “AmericanEast” maintains a palpable tension between social point-making and workaday soap opera. Presence of Tony Shalhoub as the hero’s Jewish friend, coupled with an upbeat ending, could sell this solid, homegrown Muslims-in-our-midst tale.
Moustafa (Sayed Badreya) is having a bad day. His young son wants to be a Christian, and his teenage daughter Leila (Tay Blessey) hangs out with a pot-smoking punk girlfriend. The air conditioner in his rundown cafe is on the fritz, and his customers insist on endlessly talking politics despite a sign discouraging it.
Moustafa’s day from hell continues when, meeting a cousin at the airport, he is detained by an FBI agent (Ray Wise) who grills him for hours. Furthermore, the arranged marriage between his sister Salwah (Sarah Shahi) and the newly arrived cousin looks to be over before it starts. And everyone disses his idea of opening a classy Middle Eastern restaurant with his Jewish pal, Sam (Shalhoub).
Helmer Issawi maintains a tricky balance between comedy and disaster in Moustafa’s storyline, greatly aided by Badreya’s bearlike, all-embracing warmth and the hip-hop rhythms of cafe habitue Murad’s (Anthony Azizi) nonstop Muslim agitprop.
Other sections of the film, when not tonally grounded by cafe ambiance or Moustafa’s unifying presence, prove more of a mixed bag. The treatment of Salwah’s attempted premarital fling with an attractive doctor wavers uncertainly between the character’s own subjectivity and the more lurid hues of Egyptian melodrama. More assured is a wittily exaggerated “educational” scene where Leila and her best bud get companionably high on weed, while a crudely (if deliberately so) animated sequence blithely sums up the history of Islam in a speedy nutshell.
A significant secondary plot concerns Omar (Kais Nashif), a struggling young actor who drives Moustafa’s cab between auditions and gigs. Newly engaged to sprightly, pregnant blonde Kate (Amanda Detmer), he finds his joy tempered by frustration at constantly being typecast as a terrorist (a glance at Badreya’s filmography suggests that this part of his screenplay was all too autobiographical).
Thesps manage to create a vibrant sense of community among themselves, and the script scrupulously avoids oversimplification (the FBI agent exhibits a far more nuanced view of Arabs than the trigger-happy local law, for instance). Yet the sweep of Issawi’s vision exceeds his grasp. Scenes often feel cobbled together, Moustafa’s cafe representing the sole constant in an otherwise artificially connected universe.
Tech credits are solid.