Detroit Unleaded is a film that you have to let wash over you. The acting isn’t stellar, and it’s a little hard to figure out who’s related to who at first, but the film gives the audience a compelling, almost voyeuristic look into the world surrounding an inner-city gas station.
It may not be the heartiest meal, nor the healthiest, but it’s filling nonetheless.
Director: Rola Nashef
Release Date: March 1, 2014 (Video on Demand)
Sami (E.J. Assi) is the owner of an unnamed gas station in the pits of Detroit. A once ambitious young man, Sami was forced to take over the station after the death of his father. He runs the store with his cousin Mike (Mike Batayeh), barely scraping by every day. Mike has his eye on franchising, but Sami wants nothing more to do with the gas station.
One day, Najlah (Nada Shouhayib), an associate of Mike’s (it’s not really clear what their relationship is) comes to the station with a long distance phone card delivery, and Sami is almost instantly smitten. But — wouldn’t you know it — Najlah’s brother doesn’t approve of their romance! So the couple must go behind everyone’s back while figuring out what it is they want from life.
Detroit Unleaded isn’t original, by any means. It’s hard to pick out a plot point I haven’t seen before: forbidden romance, ambition crushed by familial obligations, the usual. Unleaded sets itself apart with surprisingly nuanced takes on racial identity, immigration, the American Dream™, and companionship.
You see, Sami is the son of Arabic immigrants; his mother doesn’t even speak English. His family and close friends pepper their conversations with Arabic phrases. The various aspects of Arab-American culture depicted are subtle, and feel like they were taken straight from the life of a regular person.
There’s also an undercurrent of discomfort throughout the entire film. The rival gas station down the road is an effective background antagonist. All things equal, who knows how both stations would end up. But Sami’s gas station entered the game with a handicap. The rival station is privilege incarnate: a cappuccino machine, the ability to drop their prices out of spite, and a neon “God Bless!” sign in the window.
Sure, the rival gas station is basically a giant sign that reads “WHITE PEOPLE,” but in an age where the “show, don’t tell” rule has been all but obliterated, I appreciate proper use of cinematic techniques. Besides, this kind of symbolism doesn’t need to be one of those things where some film genius points it out after the fact and everyone slaps their head. It’s crucial that the audience understands the plight of Sami on some level, be it conscious or subconscious.
It’s definitely well-written, although the acting could have been improved. Everyone delivers their lines with just the slightest hint of boredom; not one delivery feels entirely natural. The acting isn’t bad, just stilted. This flaw is particularly noticeable when it’s time for Sami and Najlah to romance each other.
The side characters — the ones that jump in and out of the film, circling the gas station like seagulls around a pile of dead fish — are on a different level, thankfully. Without a cast of side characters, the film wouldn’t be as effective. Detroit Unleaded needed to accurately portray the ins and outs of working a menial service job. As someone who currently (sadly) works in such an industry, I speak with some authority when I say Unleaded absolutely nails it.
One aspect in particular about the customers really stood out: their sense of humor. The line “Hey, when are you gonna lower the gas prices?” is an oft-repeated “joke.” I cannot possibly begin to count how many customers I’ve encountered who are under the impression they are the most original comedian on the face of the planet. “Hey, when are the coffee prices gonna go down?” they quip, as if they’re Louis goddamn C.K.
Apparently, director/screenwriter Rola Nashef drew from her real-life experiences to make Detroit Unleaded, and it shows. Unfortunately, there are the usual rom-com staples. It’s 2014, and we are still pulling out the “OH NO THE COUPLE BROKE UP BECAUSE OF MISUNDERSTANDING/FAMILY” cliche.
It’s especially painful when you combine that old plot point with some generally stilted acting. For the time being, Nashef is certainly not a talented director of actors. You can see the potential in this cast, but I’m willing to bet something was lost in the direction. It’s a little hard to describe to someone who’s never seen the film, but the actors constantly feel like they’re right on the edge of a great performance. All they need is a solid push, but said push never came during the production.
Detroit Unleaded is at its best when you’re not trying to pick it apart. What it’s trying to do is fairly obvious, and that’s a good thing. It’s content with showing you the lives of some regular people. Like I said earlier, let the movie simply wash over you, and you’ll probably walk away satisfied. Unleaded is the best kind of film to watch on a lazy summer afternoon. If you find yourself bored on a Sunday in the next couple months, give it a rent. It’ll fit the bill perfectly.