Rola Nashef’s Detroit Unleaded features an early montage of women in hijabs, storefronts covered in Arabic writing, and a “Welcome to Detroit” sign, directly and quickly establishing Motor City’s strong Arab community. EJ Assi and Nada Shouhayib star as Sami and Naj, twentysomethings stuck at home due to family pressure. The film opens with Sami’s father being fatally shot while working at the family gas station; the story then flashes forward to the present day, where a grown-up Sami has shelved his dreams for college in order to keep the business alive. Naj, meanwhile, works at her brother Fadi’s (Steven Soro) cellphone store despite having a business degree. Moving back in with Mom and Dad may be a common phenomenon for American post-collegiates in recent years, but it’s always been the expected course for many second-generation Middle-Eastern twentysomethings. The film explores how such traditions and lack of opportunities in Detroit hold back Sami and Naj, and though they’re initially semi-accepting of their fates, complete with eye rolling and exasperated sighs, the film’s simplistic solution to their problems is to have them overstep family expectations and leave the city.
Sami and Naj’s relationship can only develop within the safe and covert confines of Sami’s bulletproofed workplace, as their families forbid them to date, and the film is most successful in scenes that humorously depict Naj’s attempts to circumvent Arab tradition in order to establish her own sense of freedom outside of Fadi’s overprotective watch. She forces her friends to flee a club after spotting her brother there, and when realizing she shouldn’t have blabbed about Sami to her friends, she pretends to break up with him to prevent rumors.
Though the film compellingly engages with the specific problems of a cultural group rarely represented in American film, the solution for Sami and Naj to run off together materializes too easily and abruptly; after Naj’s brother finds out about their relationship, it only takes a simple phone call from Sami to convince an upset Naj to leave Detroit behind. Ending with the happy couple driving off, the film doesn’t grapple with the aftermath of their departure on their respective families. This includes Sami’s stay-at-home mother, Mariam (Mary Assel), who relies on her son’s income and laments the day when he’ll leave their family home. While her character arc is more focused on how she must move on from grieving her husband to enjoy life again, the film chooses to neglect practical circumstances about her future.
Detroit Unleaded is meticulous in detailing the shibboleths of its characters to capture the contemporary diasporic experience of Detroit’s young Arab community, but its storytelling is too rudimentary, as is the characterization of its main character. For someone who hates his job, Sami never expands on what exactly he might do if the gas station were out of the picture, and though the film does much to underscore the monotonous nature of Sami working long shifts, it does so at the sake of developing his outside interests or any other defining traits. When Naj presses him about his future plans, he quickly changes the subject. Because the film isn’t written with the kind of nuance necessary to flesh out this kind of inner turmoil, the vague circumstances in which the two depart feels like a copout. In the last scene, when a stranger asks where Sami is headed, he smiles and says, “I don’t know yet. I’ll find out when I get there.”
Certainly, the film’s takeaway message lies in the old adage that life is about the journey instead of the destination. Yet after delineating how difficult it is for the characters to leave their families and has outlined the tangible, cultural limitations in young Arab-American life, Detroit Unleaded almost seems to suggest the fantastical notion that picking up and leaving is as easy as filling up a tank of gas and flooring it out of the wasteland.