This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls.
An uplifting and engrossing film that manages to hit just the right notes in both its comedic and dramatic registers, The Persian Version won this year’s Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic category and garnered writer, director and producer Maryam Keshavarz the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It’s also a film that, as soon as it was over, I wanted to watch again in order to mine the depth of associations and allusions the film layers in its ambitious rendering of a mother and daughter’s intersecting lives. I’ll have to wait, though, until it comes out in theaters; The Persian Version was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for international theatrical distribution just after the festival.
Keshavarz uses her own life as a starting point: she grew up in an Iranian American family with seven brothers and a mother and father who emigrated from Iran and struggled to make ends meet in 1980s New York City. Like her film’s main character Leila (Layla Mohammadi), Keshavarz identifies as gay but became pregnant from a one-night-stand with a man shortly after divorcing her wife.
A fictionalized version of this incident sparks the action for Leila, who is also a filmmaker from an Iranian American family with seven brothers and struggles to connect with her mother, Shirin (Niousha Noor), who seems to alternate between caustic disappointment in her daughter and an anxious desire for her company. The action plays out around Leila’s father’s heart transplant and resulting recovering, bringing the family together and heightening the emotional turbulence of their interactions.
Leila wants a way to combat her mother’s disappointment and begins writing a script about their relationship, focusing at first on Shirin’s early adult life as a young immigrant mother forced to get a job after her husband’s first heart attack and Leila’s own experiences of her as her child. Twenty-something Shirin throws herself into getting her GED and then her real estate license, eventually making a name for herself as a realtor who helps immigrants buy and remodel homes and businesses, while young Leila tries to carve out her own tween identity. But these are the parts of Shirin’s story Leila already knows—as she starts to learn more, in part through conversations with her grandmother, Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), Leila realizes that there’s a difference between standing up to her mother and trying to understand her.
When Mamanjoon insinuates that a scandal drove Shirin and her husband to emigrate to America, Leila digs deeper, prompting a series of flashbacks to her mothers’ childhood; she was married to Leila’s father at 13 and sent off to live with her new 22-year-old husband in a remote Iranian village where he served as the doctor. In these flashbacks of their life, a young Shirin (Kamand Shafieisabet) takes over the narrative, forcing Leila and the audience to perceive her story and choices from her own perspective. As these memories unfold, Leila and Shirin’s experiences intertwine, and we are graced with the complex beauty and heartbreak of a mother’s love and the tenuous agency of a young girl married in a country where divorce could ruin her life.
Ultimately, The Persian Version is a smart, joyful film that neither shies away from, nor lingers on, grief. It borrows the conventional immigrant narrative of resilience and molds it into a nuanced reflection on mother-daughter relationships, cultural difference, and the power of choosing your own story. All the while, Keshavarz’s film remains funny and thoughtful, full of music and family, playing with narrative and form in inventive and surprising ways that augment the film’s message rather than distracting from it.
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