A more romantic variation on Clerks, Detroit Unleaded charts the budding relationship between Lebanese-American gas station owner Sami (EJ Assi) and his beautiful cousin Naj (Nada Shouhayib).
After his father is killed in a robbery, Sami is compelled to take over the family’s Detroit-slums business with his ambitious cousin Mike (Mike Batayeh). Naj and Sami’s meet-cute takes place in “the cage,” the area located behind the counter and bulletproof-glass partition, and that space provides a fitting metaphor for Sami’s feelings of being trapped in a life he didn’t choose.
Director Rola Nashef’s visuals can be clunky, and her script’s conversational dialogue is occasionally stilted. Nonetheless, she draws her characters in sharp lines, so that the gaggle of customers who frequent Sami’s workplace — or Naj’s girlfriends, who in one scene exhibit clearly defined and distinctive personalities — feel not like types but, rather, like diverse individuals.
That’s also true of Sami and Naj, whose goofing-around rapport has a sweetness that makes up for the somewhat sketchy particulars of their coupling, and helps sell their amour as more than merely a narrative device.
Moreover, the tensions that soon arise from the domineering sexism of Naj’s brother provides a cultural-critique undercurrent that bolsters the film’s endearing portrait of young lovers in search of joint escape.