Set in the unofficial Arab-American capital, “Detroit Unleaded” is a lively slice-of-life that uses familiar romantic-comedy tropes and a vibrant cast of characters to humorously explore family relationships, cultural identity and love. Lebanese-American helmer Rola Nashef’s feature debut is a mainstream-friendly American indie that plays like a mashup of “Clerks” and “Amreeka” spiced with “Do the Right Thing.” The film having spent more than a year on the fest circuit, distributor First Pond Entertainment is testing the theatrical waters, although ancillary is more likely to fill the tank.
When his gentle gas-station owner father (Akram El-Ahmar) meets an unexpected end in the pic’s opening moments, Sami (E.J. Assi) winds up in a literal and metaphorical cage, reluctantly forgoing college to take over the family business with his enterprising cousin Mike (Mike Batayeh, “Breaking Bad”). The end result: He’s confined to a tiny space behind the station’s newly installed bulletproof glass for 12-hour shifts. Meanwhile, his widowed mother, Mariam (Mary Assel) stubbornly continues her lonely, homebound mourning, refusing even to socialize with her friendly Arab-American neighbors.
In contrast to the quiet, tree-lined streets of Dearborn, Mich., where Sami and Mariam live, the pic’s main location is a 24-hour gas station and convenience store in gritty, dangerous East Detroit. It’s a place where Arab-Americans and African-Americans meet, albeit mostly on opposite sides of the safety glass. It’s also where, several years after his father’s death, Sami is finally jolted out of his boredom and frustration when pretty Najlah (Nada Shouhayib) walks into the station.
Tough-talking Naj works with her controlling older brother, Fadi (Steven Soro), at a cell-phone emporium. Not unlike Sami, she finds her independence compromised by family ties that are both comforting and constricting. It’s clear that Sami and Naj are smitten with one another, but tradition-bound cultural mores get in the way of normal dating.
Director Nashef and her production designer make notably clever use of the gas-station interior. Whenever Sami can persuade Naj to join him in the increasingly cluttered space behind the barrier, the continual stream of arriving customers (or, worse yet, relatives) interrupt their chaste but sweetly romantic courtship.
Indeed, the station’s increasingly crowded interior becomes a running joke as the resourceful Mike tries to compete with the mega-station across the road. Not content with pushing rolling papers, fake perfumes and NoDoz, he adds flowers (fresh and fake), dodgy DVDs, and all manner of tchotchkes to keep the money flowing in. But this inventory further impedes Sami’s already limited freedom, as well as his personal space.
Expanding on the idea behind her 2007 short of the same title, Nashef’s feature (co-written with Heather Kolf and Jennifer Ginzinger) won the inaugural Grolsch Film Works Discovery Award at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival. Filled with tart dialogue, the perceptive script captures certain aspects of Arab-American life in ways that feel fresh yet universally recognizable. The chief flaw is that the main characters are too thinly drawn; fleshing out their inchoate desires would have provided more narrative heft.
Above all, it’s Nashef’s ability to translate her themes visually that makes her a talent to watch. As befits a film set in Detroit, she uses cars to provide both a means of escape and a way to realize deferred dreams. Despite a tight budget, the colorful tech package is strong. Bright, energetic widescreen lensing by Keir Yee takes in the neighborhood characters in a view-askew manner, while Joe Namy’s score and the soundtrack combine Arabic sounds with African-American tunes the Motor City is known for.