A few years ago, I reviewed The Big Sick and pondered the possibility of Muslim filmmakers gaining an identity in Western cinema like other ethnic and religious minorities have before them. It seems to be happening now — Desirée Akhavan’s bisexual romance Appropriate Behavior, Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ali Abbasi’s serial-killer film The Holy Spider, and Nida Manzoor’s teen martial-arts flick Polite Society are all informed by Islam, and none could have been made in the Middle East’s repressive regimes. Not all these movies are good, but together they make a movement. Joining them is Maryam Keshavarz’ comedy The Persian Version, which brings a compelling star turn to some local multiplexes this weekend.
Our protagonist is Leila Jamshidpour (Layla Mohammadi), an aspiring filmmaker in the mid-2000s and the rebellious only daughter out of nine siblings in an Iranian family in New Jersey. Though she is a lesbian, she becomes pregnant after having sex at a Halloween party with Max (Tom Byrne), a British actor who’s playing the lead in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway. Good thing her ailing father (Bijan Daneshmand) is already scheduled to get a new heart. Her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) acts like Leila has shamed the whole family by producing her first grandchild. Leila’s grandmother (Bella Warda) is disappointed, too, but only because she previously advised Leila to stick to anal sex precisely to avoid this situation.
I wasn’t a fan of Keshavarz’ debut effort as a filmmaker, 2011’s Circumstance. Fortunately, being funny and postmodern and mining her own life story suits her far better than the seriousness of her earlier film. She goes crazy with the storytelling devices: animation, Bollywood-inspired dance numbers, cheeky flashbacks (including little Leila smuggling Cyndi Lauper albums into post-revolution Iran in the 1980s), and Leila’s fourth-wall breaking narration. That last bit showcases a star-making performance from Mohammadi, who bears a startling resemblance to Melissa Barrera. She carries herself like a force of nature as she struts and smirks her way down the streets of Manhattan while informing us about the particulars of Shia Islam, spilling the tea about her brothers (“the goth, the hippie, the metrosexual, JFK Junior minus the plane crash”), and telling us “It’s not binge-eating when you’re pregnant” while scarfing down a triple cheeseburger.
She’s so good that she helps unbalance the film — the stretch about young Shireen (Kamand Shafieisabet) getting married and having kids at 14 in the remote Iranian countryside isn’t bad, but we yearn to have Leila’s snarky voice back in our ear. (By the way, the Iranian scenes were filmed in Türkiye, since it’s not safe even for Iranians to film in Iran right now.) That’s typical of the way this film leaves plotlines on the table: Leila’s unresolved issues with her ex (Mia Foo), her experience going through this unexpected pregnancy, her indecision when Max proposes that they continue dating after the baby is born. With so much unexplored material, this film would have worked better as a TV series or a graphic novel.
Alternatively, it would also have worked better by focusing on Leila reconciling herself with the mother who threw her out of the house when she came out. Shireen sees Leila’s first film screen at the New York Film Festival and tells her daughter, “You do this to hurt me” while the fans around her applaud. Still, Leila’s discovery of her mother’s past brings her to understand why Shireen so often treats her as the family disappointment. It culminates in a potent scene where she names her baby after the child that her mother lost. A filmmaker who has been around for more than a decade suddenly establishes herself as a bold new comic voice in The Persian Version. I’d welcome more of this (and some more filmmaking discipline) from her and her leading lady.
The Persian Version
Starring Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor. Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz. Rated R.