Kurt Brokaw's New Directors/New Film, Part Three.
Amreeka (America). The setting you may remember most vividly in Cherien Dabis's warm and measured debut feature is a White Castle. Does this orphan of the fast-food strip mall still exist? Absolutely, just as it did in 2003 when American troops entered Baghdad and the Gulf War reignited small-town prejudices toward foreign immigrants, especially Arabs with newly-issued Green Cards. Drawn from Ms. Dabis' own Palestinian/Jordanian familial roots, "Amreeka" is the Opening Night selection of the 38th annual New Directors/New Films (25 feature films showing March 25-April 5 at Manhattan's Walter Reade theatre and the Museum of Modern Art). It's an absorbing, viewer-friendly odyssey of a well-educated Arab mother, Muna (Nisreen Faour) and her shy teen son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) colliding with the realities of working-class prejudice all around a rural Illinois White Castle, where the mother ends up building burgers. As "Amreeka's" unabashedly commercial poster above shows, she's "serving up the American dream."
"God loves American hamburgers" and "bless our oops" read the battered and tattered highway pole signs next to the White Castle, and the fast-food manager looks and acts like a real drudge. The boy dipping the fries has blue hair and a pierced lip, which tells you anything goes in the local youth culture as long as you're a red-blooded American. The stout Muna puts on a WC uniform and her best smile, but her equally bulky customers don't like it when she starts pushing diet pills at them. Worse, the high school boys are your usual foul-mouthed louts, and you know poor Fadi is in for a terrible beating. For awhile, "Amreeka" seems to be tilting into "Gran Torino" country, but Cherien Dabis' film is about finding a home in a mixed-culture society without losing your identity or your life. We stay a long way from Clint Eastwood's Detroit.
"Amreeka" has an abundance of refreshing surprises, one of whom is an appealing high school administrator (Joseph Ziegler) whose own ancestry as a Polish Jew gives him a natural affinity toward Fadi, and whose status as a recent divorcee begins to draw him toward the divorced Muna. He becomes the film's moral conscience. Another male teacher is tough but fair-minded in helping transition the boy into his unruly classroom. Muna's sister and her family, who moved earlier into the community, also support the newcomers. There's even a Middle Eastern restaurant tucked somewhere along that endless highway strip where the combined families have an evening of native food and song. But "Amreeka's" most touching distinction has to be that White Castle, in its way a tiny, stubborn survivor in a world of fast-food behemoths. Cherien Dabis shot this agreeable and fully mature feature in Ramallah and Winnipeg, the latter doubling handily for a non-descript Illinois. She had the full cooperation of White Castle management, a salutary collaboration between one of our newest independent filmmakers and one of our oldest independent restaurant chains.
Every Little Step. Deep in the audition-and-callback process for the 2006 Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line" in the enthralling documentary by James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo is a scene in which actor Jason Tam is reading for Paul. It is, according to director Bob Adrian, along with Cassie the most difficult of the 19 roles in the musical to cast. Jason's monologue is also the most painful element of "A Chorus Line," for it's based on the heartbreaking real-life experiences of co-writer Nicholas Dante growing up gay in Spanish Harlem and working as a drag queen in Times Square. Jason fashions a reading and a wrenching performance that nearly stops the auditions--and the picture--cold. The actor appears transformed by the material and he builds it and builds it, and then he begins to really cry, and you may find yourself in tears as well. What is even more astonishing is that the filmmakers are intercutting Jason's lines with the response of director Adrian and his supporting staff who are sitting ten feet away, and nearly all of them are weeping, too. It's the one and only time in the entire artistic journey in which everyone loses it, and also the one scene in which you sense an actor has nailed the second most important role with one giant step of a reading.
Most of "Every Little Step" is a far more jet-propelled review of the 1974 origins of director/choreographer Michael Bennett's seminal examination of every dancer's hopes and dreams, as well as its recent revival in which the choregrapher is Baayork Lee, who played the original Connie. Ms. Lee emerges as a powerhouse teacher (her ringing command to her dancers is "EAT NAILS") and she's a grown-up version of the endearing Yuka Takara, who is finally chosen as Connie The documentary is also framed by a continuing narrator, Jessica Lee Goldyn, who will win the role of Val. The flow of the process is, at heart, a competition among a huge talent pool, and to its credit "Every Little Step" gives a lot of screen time to the actors who are cut in the callbacks. The presentation of auditions often links together readings by multiple actors trying out for a role. Chances are you'll agree with most if not all of the choices made by Adrian, Lee and the producing team, which makes the viewing experience all the more pleasurable.
"Every Little Step" is a defining document of the creative process that constructs the foundations of musical theatre. The camera keeps returning to a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing snippets of Michael Bennett's oral notes and musings. Joe Papp's contributions at thee Public Theater production are acknowledged. Marvin Hamlisch, who co-wrote "Chorus Line's" Pulitzer Prize winning score, recalls how in its first previews, audiences seemed put off by something in the story, and how actress Marsha Mason senses what it was and told Bennett--that Cassie (Donna McKechnie) has done everything right and should win, not lose, the part. Bennett changes it to a win and the rest is history. "Every Little Step" has a lot of these kinds of anecdotes and secrets, revealed for the first time. It's a love letter to everything a theatergoer has loved about "A Chorus Line," and make no mistake, it's the documentary to beat for next year's Oscar. The last shot of the film, after the end credit crawl, is the perfect coda: Months later we watch Jason Tam, the actor who broke every heart in that reading, nodding good night outside the theater and shuffling off alone into the New York night. He has a peaceful smile at last, and he's earned it.