As our cultures evolve and our values expand, our understanding of the family dynamic changes, too. Such is the way of the mostly true story of The Persian Version from writer-director Maryam Keshavarz, which is expanding in theaters this weekend.
At the heart of every family, though, is a strong-willed woman. This is no different in Iran than it is in America. Keshavarz competently tells the story of Leila (Layla Mohammadi), the daughter of an immigrant family. As an Iranian-American, Leila struggles to relate to her blood relatives. She also struggles in the relationship arena, meeting with disapproval from her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), and her former partners.
Keshavarz injects humor into this dramedy, a story about secrets and determined, strong women making their way in their own way. Mohammadi is stunning in her stern but fun performance as Leila. Her colorful story is nothing without the divide between her and her mom. Keshavarz explores this by journeying into Shireen’s past, where a scandal in their isolated village caused her and Ali Reza, her husband (Bijan Daneshmand), to flee to America.
In addition to peering through the looking glass to find her way, Leila recounts the division between “two former lovers,” Iran and the United States. The Persian Version demonstrates the rift between both nations and its implications on the mother-daughter relationship.
Keshavarz uses the strength that guides Leila and Shireen through telling their own stories. The pain the characters harbor and how unacknowledged pain can get in the way of finding love in the arms of those who need each other is this story’s strength.
Surrounding the two women is a dysfunctional family that would make the Bundys blush – Abbas, Majid, Eman, and Shivaz love their sister in their own way, but they are also as independent as the women who raised them. Then there is Manajoon (Bella Warda), a carefully-spoken grandmother, the one who trusts Leila the most. Tom Byrne’s Maximilian Balthazar is probably the only character that pops in and out throughout the story. Byrne’s performance is witty, even if some of it is lost in the family dynamics.
The drama within The Persian Version is as adept as the comedy; they punctuate each other just as mother and daughter do, both brimming with independence, willing to do what is necessary to keep their untold stories alive. The Persian Version is highly topical, both in its modern story and its journey through the decades it represents.
The eclectic story is nothing without its characters. Keshavarz has developed a rich set of characters set in a richly told, well-worn tale. Most of The Persian Version is narrated from Leila’s and Shireen’s points of view. It is a compelling, unique story, attracting the Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance this year. Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor offer strong performances, with Bella Warda distinguishing herself, while Jerry Habibi (Abbas) is a hoot whenever he’s on screen.
The Persian Version moves as swiftly and as strongly as its main subjects. Its eclectic nature harbors the vibrancy of a cultural union and a generational gap that is not as wide as the story portends it to be.
The Persian Version
Written & Directed by Maryam Keshavarz
Starring Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Bijan Daneshmand, Bella Warda, Jerry Habibi
R, 117 mins, Sony Pictures Classics