Detroit Unleaded
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You may think that if you’ve seen one romantic comedy, you’ve seen them all. After all, they usually feature the same old characters walking through the same old story. But director Rola Nashef gives the genre an interesting cultural twist in her first feature, Detroit Unleaded.

Sami (E. J. Assi) has always dreamed of getting out of Detroit—of starting a new life somewhere far away. But after his father is killed during a robbery at the family’s gas station, Sami finds himself taking over the family business with his ambitious cousin, Mike (Mike Batayeh).

Trapped in his bullet-proof cage, Sami lives his life in a haze of belligerent customers—until he meets Saj (Nada Shouhayib) while she’s delivering phone cards for her brother, Fadi (Steven Soro). Mike warns Sami that Saj is nothing but an “up-do girl,” but he can’t stop thinking about her. Saj, meanwhile, is intrigued by the sweet gas station boy—so, careful to keep their budding relationship a secret from her overprotective brother, she sneaks out at night to spend time huddled in the cage with Sami, dreaming of a life away from Detroit.

No matter how many romantic comedies you’ve seen before, there’s a pretty good chance that you haven’t seen one quite like Detroit Unleaded. That’s not because it’s especially outrageous or so strikingly romantic. The story, after all, generally goes through the usual rom-com motions. But its cultural touches make it different—and memorable. Set in the ghettos of Detroit—a place where wayward motorists are advised to run red lights while driving as fast as they can to get out—the film is filled with interesting characters from a variety of cultures. Whether it’s Roger (Scott Norman), the eccentric parking lot attendant, or the plethora of customers who constantly complain about rising gas prices as they buy gas, cigarettes, and whatever cheesy merchandise Mike decides to stock inside the cage, as the characters come and go, they give the film a unique cultural flair.

At the heart of the film, meanwhile, are the Lebanese-American characters, who offer just a little bit of insight into both their personalities and their culture as the story unfolds. Sami feels obligated to sacrifice his dreams to run his father’s gas station. Saj fears how her brother and his friends will react to her choices. And Sami’s widowed mother, Mariam (Mary Assel), settles into a lifetime of mourning and loneliness, shunning anything that could bring her happiness—from her colorful dresses to the neighbors’ invitations.

The story, meanwhile, is light and entertaining—though not particularly remarkable. It moves along at a relaxed pace, with conflict that often feels forced. But while the story itself is nothing special, the charming characters, their unique setting, and the interesting cultural touches are more than enough to hold your attention. So if Detroit Unleaded plays in your ‘hood, it’s worth a look.

Ed. Note: Detroit Unleaded is currently making its way to film festivals—including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. For more information, visit

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