Feb. 12 2014 12:00 AM

Romantic comedy ‘Detroit Unleaded’ explores Michigan’s Lebanese culture


If downtrodden, demoralized Detroit needs representation to prove that it’s still alive, that its huge heart still pulses with the lifeblood of iron-willed, diverse ethnic groups, “Detroit Unleaded” is its perfect ambassador.

The film, written and directed by Lansing native Rola Nashef, is many things. It’s a sweet romantic comedy; it’s a thoughtful examination of Old World culture preservation; and it’s a workplace farce that stays just this side of bawdy. Through it all shines a love for Detroit — for America, really — where anything is possible. If the film were any less honest, that sentiment would seem trite, but in Nashef’s skillful hands, “Unleaded” becomes a timeless tale of hope and, just in time for Valentine’s Day, true love.

Meet Sami (EJ Assi), the reluctant co-owner of his recently slain father’s gas station on Detroit’s east side. He commutes from the tony suburb of Dearborn where he lives with his mourning mother, but what he really wants to do is go to college in California. Instead, he sits inside a bulletproof glass cage 12 hours a day listening to the incessant beeping of the door, conversing with self-appointed “parking lot manager” Roger (a brilliant piece of character acting by Scott Norman) and having to smile good-naturedly every time someone berates him for the price of gas. Sami’s doing the right thing, but he’s not happy about it.

Enter Naj (luminous newcomer Nada Shouhayib), who accidentally ventures into Sami’s station one day. The two fall instantly for each other, and damn if you don’t feel those butterflies as they fawn over each other through the three-inch plastic barrier the first time. Then, in a sledgehammer-soft metaphor, he opens up his Plexiglas prison to her and allows her to enter his personal space. Sparks fly, hearts pound and stars start to align … that is, until word starts to get around that this high-maintenance “updo girl” has been spotted with a (gasp) gas station attendant, and social politics throw a monkey wrench in the works.

“Detroit Unleaded” is set in southeast Michigan’s vibrant Lebanese community where the Arabic and English languages dance in a single rollicking tongue and questioning tradition is unheard of. Ironically, by keeping the focus on this distinctly Arab American experience, Nashef’s message becomes universal: Most of us live within some type of antiquated system of societal norms that we obey but have no idea why, even when it means denying ourselves happiness or feeling guilty about that happiness. You may not logically understand why Naj is so subservient to her overbearing brother, but you grok it. It’s just how it is.

Nashef and her scriptwriters, Jennifer Ginzinger and Heather Kolf, have keen ears for realistic dialogue. This is how people talk to their customers, their friends, their widowed mothers, their romantic rivals. And through her actors, Nashef masterfully coaxes truthful performances that convey the wordless longing of a new love or the colorful personality quirks required to operate an inner-city business.

The camera doesn’t shy away from the city’s seedier locations or elements, nor does it dwell on them; it also includes several locations so beautiful you wouldn’t believe they still exist in Motown. I daresay if “Detroit Unleaded” gets picked up for national distribution, it has the power to win the city new fans. Even if it doesn’t, though, it’s good PR to let the world know it’s still open for business.

“Detroit Unleaded” plays at Studio C!, 1999 Central Park Drive, Okemos, as part of the East Lansing Film Series through the end of February. For dates and show times, go to studioctheatre.com.