With her tart directness, Leila makes a sly protagonist in “The Persian Version,” a Sundance-blessed dramatic comedy about the widening rift between an immigrant mother and her Iranian American daughter. Laila Mohammadi and Nyusha Noor play the roles of Leela and her mother Shireen. They also carry the weight of writer-director Maryam Kesharvarj’s third feature, which weaves comedy and tragedy, vivid exuberance and thoughtful restraint.
In 2011, Kesarvarj made his directorial debut at the Sundance Film Festival with “Circumstance”, winner of that year’s Audience Award for Dramatic Feature. Set in Tehran, the LGBTQ-hued film focuses on a well-to-do Iranian family dealing with their sexually rebellious daughter (and daddy’s girl) and a son who recovers from drug addiction and replaces it with a newfound craze for radical ideology. by doing “Persian Version” moves between the present and the past (colorful intertitles chronicle the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s) and shuttles from New York through New Jersey to a rural outpost in Iran, where Leela’s mother and father are just starting out as a doctor. the ground
Some features overlap between the director’s first and third films: Leela is a lesbian and one of her brothers (there are seven) is her twin, much to their mother’s displeasure. But the film is not about coming out or fathers. Although Leela, an indie filmmaker, continues to identify as a lesbian, she is unwittingly knocked up when she tries out with a man she mistakes for a drag queen (played by Tom Byrne). He didn’t.
If that sounds dirty, it is. And “The Persian Version” is a little crazy and self-indulgent, unlike its protagonist, before it settles into Shirin’s frontal groove. Noor balances her roles as a judgmental mother and the hard-working head of a family that flirts with financial ruin when husband Ali Reza (Bijan Daneshmand) suffers a heart attack. The scenes where Shireen takes matters into her own hands and begins studying for a real estate license reveal her to be more than the sum of her disrespect for her daughter’s sexuality.
To make sure it remains a mother-daughter story, Ali Reza is sent to a hospital where she awaits a heart transplant. Banished from her father’s hospital room by Shirin, Leela spends time with her mother’s very familiar mother, Mamanjun (Bella Warda, while played by Sachli Golamlizad in the younger version – both good).
Mamanjun offers some wisdom to his granddaughter: “If you want to understand your mother, write about her.” He also mentioned that his parents left Iran for the United States because of a scandal. Lila’s antennae vibrate: Stigma? Knowing what that humiliation might entail signals a shift in the film’s approach, which cleverly directs a teenage Shireen (Kamand Shafisabet) to us as she takes the storytelling reins to describe her and Ali Reza’s life in Iran. (Shervin Allenabi portrays the younger Ali Reza.)
It’s a dramatic shift from lively to brooding and reveals the director’s interest in the twisted genre and an Iranian American reckoning with his past back home to his parents. For the most part, it works — and even when it strains, it says so. Shireen didn’t become strong overnight, and as Leela went through her pregnancy, her mother became more complicated to her.
“Persian Version” is one of three different films focusing on Persian women at Sundance. It resonates in the context of ongoing women’s rights protests in Iran.
Early in “The Persian Version,” little Leila (Chiara Stella) and her mother smuggle drugs to Iran on vacation. Pop music is especially illegal, and a gathering of family and friends turns into an impromptu backyard dance party featuring Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
It is sensitive, to be sure, and exhilarating. (Yes, each side needs some version of Electric Slide, and Rostam Batmanglij’s score, and the credits-remix of that girl power anthem.) But blink and you’ll miss a look between Shireen and little Leela (Chiara Stella), who has such a connection. Talks that can still save a mother-daughter bond — that emphasizes that wanting to have fun can be revolutionary.
There’s a reason that the first sequence shows Leela strutting into a Halloween party in an electric blue knicker over a pink tankini. Really fun.