Arab-American experiences have been so poorly represented in films — especially comedies — that it’s tempting to celebrate Detroit Unleaded’s modest triumphs and excuse its larger failings. But the film’s best moments are so strong that its inability to shape them into a compelling narrative overall registers as a disappointment.
In the film, Sami (EJ Assi) reluctantly takes over the family gas station after his father is murdered in a stickup. He spends his long shifts behind a newly installed wall of bulletproof glass, resisting the efforts of his cousin Mike (Mike Batayeh) to improve the business and pining for Najlah (Nada Shouhayib), a pretty phone-store employee who is off limits for reasons that until late in the film are kept inexplicably vague, considering how simple they turn out to be.
The film nails the specifics of daily life at a gas station, with a loose, funny tone whenever the characters are just shooting the breeze. There are also some nice local and cultural details, if not enough. But amateurish contrivances take hold whenever director Rola Nashef and her co-writers try to advance their barely-there plot, and the mere competence of the camerawork and editing doesn’t help. The greatest liability, however, is Sami, a passive cipher at the center of the story. Every other character, including those that appear only briefly, is more interesting than he is, and Assi’s sometimes-awkward performance lacks the forcefulness to enhance this underwritten role.
Detroit Unleaded is an expansion of a twenty-minute short Nashef made in 2007, and I suspect its slice-of-life vignettes revolving around oddball customers worked much better in that more compact format, where they would have been the whole show instead of serving as grace notes for a confused attempt at linear storytelling. This premature feature debut can’t sustain interest (or logic) over 90 minutes, but it does contain promising evidence of keen eye for detail.