MOVIE OF THE WEEK October 20, 2023 – THE PERSIAN VERSION

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A strong-willed mother and her independent daughter butt heads but ultimately gain a greater understanding of each other in Iranian American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’ semi-autobiographical dramedy The Persian Version. Switching between narrators and perspectives and jumping back and forth in time between the past and the present to reveal key moments in both women’s lives, it creatively explores tensions connected to cultural conflict and family relationships.

The movie initially seems like it’s going to be the story of Leila (Layla Mohammadi), a lesbian Iranian American screenwriter whose large family — in which Leila is the only daughter — is drawn together in New Jersey by the impending heart surgery of her long-ill father, Ali (Bijan Daneshmand). And it is her story. But it’s also the story of Shireen (Niousha Noor), the mother Leila views as rigid and disapproving but who, it turns out, is afraid to let down her guard because she’s had to fight her whole life to support and protect herself and her family. When Leila shares unexpected news, it stirs up old feelings and memories for both Shireen and her own mother, Mamanjoon (Bella Warda).

Underlying the plot’s twists and turns (and there are some good ones!) is Keshavarz’ loving affection for/exasperation with the traditions and customs that come with being Iranian American. This isn’t the first movie to delve into the clash between immigrants and their first-generation children — and it won’t be the last — but Keshavarz’ willingness to experiment with storytelling techniques keeps things fresh and interesting, and the main characters are well-drawn and engaging.

Mohammadi and Noor give particularly rich performances; their mother-daughter dynamic is convincing and relatable. Kamand Shafieisabet is also excellent in the flashback scenes to Shireen’s girlhood in Iran, and Tom Byrne has a 1990s Hugh Grant appeal as the self-effacing British actor who finds his way into Leila’s life. It might have been nice to get to know some of Leila’s many brothers a bit better, but it’s also consistent with the story’s focus on the female characters’ journeys that they sort of blend together in the background. In the end, The Persian Version is a story about the generational weight of womanhood, and that’s what it delivers. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Nell Minow: Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz has created a tender, joyous autobiographical film bursting with warmth, humor, forgiveness, and connection. She pauses what begins as a semi-comic story of a first generation American struggling with the expectations of immigrant parents to shift to a heartfelt tribute to her mother’s struggles, from gifted schoolgirl to child bride to determined businesswoman. The shift in perspective and tone could be jarring, but Keshavarz embraces the messiness of life that, unlike movies, transcends genre. Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor fully inhabit the roles of mother and daughter with gorgeous performances and the girls who play their younger selves are also spectacular. This is one of my favorite films of the year.

Pam Grady: Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz mines her own life to vivid effect in this deft blend of drama and comedy. The stand-in for Keshavarz is Leila (Layla Mohammadi), an aspiring filmmaker and the daughter of Iranian immigrants, the sole girl growing up among enough brothers to power an NBA team and its bench. It is a close-knit family but Leila and her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) share a tense relationship, bordering on estrangement. Shireen does not understand her daughter’s artistic ambition and does not approve of lesbian Leila’s sexuality, while Leila pushes against her mom’s conservative nature and still resents the necessary neglect Leila endured when Shireen became the family breadwinner. As Leila’s father recovers from a heart transplant and she shares surprising news with her family, the conflict between mother and daughter becomes clearer in a film shot through with infectious dance numbers that travels back and forth between the US and Iran and between decades, flashbacks illuminating turns in life leading to the present moment. It is impossible to keep track of Leila’s brothers but they provide comic relief as mother and daughter lock horns, the defining feature of their relationship being mutual misunderstanding. But even in their tensest moments, there is a warmth between the women that shines through and is embedded in every frame of this irresistible tale.

Sherin Nicole The central relationship and the conflict is between Leila and her mother, Shireen (my namesake), played with cutting nuance by Niousha Noor. Shireen reacts to Leila’s sexuality with numb coldness, often pushing her daughter away with exclusory language. This is exacerbated when Leila’s freeform lifestyle results in a pregnancy by an actor in drag (Hedwig to be exact). That’s when it happens. One scandal leads to another and Leila learns that while her mother didn’t treat her right, it came from a lineage of trauma that once spoken aloud might heal them both. Read full review.

Leslie Combemale What promises a good film longevity is creating a story that finds universality in specificity. That’s what Maryam Keshavar has created with Persian Version. I have little in common with the characters, but as the writer, she, along with the actors who bring them to life, has made their experiences relatable and moving. The film is captivating from start to finish for that reason alone, but the female-centered and multi-generational story is very much worth telling.

Jennifer Merin The Persian Version is writer/director Maryam Keshavars’ thoroughly engaging dramady that is based on her real-life experiences as the lesbian daughter of culturally conservative Iranian parents who immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. The film’s rather intricate plot is uniquely structured so that the lives and experiences of Leila, the exuberantly free-spirited daughter, and Shirin, her demanding and controlling mother, are contrasted and, eventually, they are brought to a greater understanding of each other. The film is beautifully crafted and the performances are spot on. The Persian Version premiered earlier this year at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Its tone is irresistibly snarky and sweet, and decidedly entertaining.

Loren King An original, autobiographical coming-of-age and mother/daughter film, writer/director Maryam Keshavarz’s The Persian Version stars Layla Mohammadi as an acerbic millennial torn between her hipster world in Brooklyn and her heritage in Iran. The story also belongs to her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), a self-made successful realtor who frowns on her daughter’s lifestyle choices. The film is a mix of comedy and drama, much fourth wall breaking, and musical interludes such as the inspired use of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun. The genre blending is a bit all over the place. But when it flashes back to rural Iran where Shireen as a very young, pregnant bride fled a troubled marriage, the film finds its footing. And mom and daughter finally find common ground.

Nikki Fowler: The Persian Version is a lively snarky dramatic comedy that crosses multi Iranian and American generations. The film stars the dynamic Layla Mohammadi as she narrates director Maryam Keshavarz’s loosely based life story with flash backs from childhood to present day, navigating youth, gender roles and her vast family dynamic and its cultural relevance in a country that asks them to serve but doesn’t always protect them. Leila’s family is reunited on the northeast when her father, a physician, is in need of a heart transplant who doesn’t have health insurance despite his twenty years of practicing healthcare in the US. Family secrets get revealed. The Persian Version is visually beautiful to watch with excellent editing, cinematography, music and choreography. The bonus is watching Layla’s intermittent Brecht-induced performance giving viewers a fresh take on an endearing immigrant family’s story of street smart survival.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’ 2023 Sundance Audience Award winner The Persian Version is both specifically about Iranian American women and also universal. A window into the cultural and personal nuances of being Iranian, American, queer, and a woman, the movie is funny and insightful and beautifully acted — particularly by Layla Mohammadi as black-sheep protagonist Leila and Niousha Noor as her exacting, semi-estranged mother Shireen, whose overly critical parenting style has pushed Leila away. A decade and generation-hopping story that reveals what a mystery parents can be to their children and vice-versa, this crowd-pleaser is one of the year’s most memorable films.

Liz Whittemore The complexities of mother-daughter dynamics, identity, tradition, gender roles, and pride come together in this scrappy dramedy about the American Dream in every sense of the phrase. As Leila tells us about her Mother’s journey, we discover the similarities between the generations. As much as we as women fight against the often hypercritical nature of our moms, decades later, we may develop a positive outlook on their influence and sacrifices. Whether that is despite them is up to us. Spectacular performances, 4th wall-breaking narration, mini history lessons, delightful choreography, time-hopping, and faux freeze frames make for a heartwarming coming of age for an entire family. The Persian Version is one of 2023’s most fun and profound films. It’s impossible not to fall head over heels with Leila and her familial plight. This creatively told story of hidden trauma, family secrets, and forgiveness surprises at every turn.

Cate Marquis Writer/director Maryam Keshavars’ funny, colorful and insightful semi-autobiographical The Persian Version opens with the main character, Leila (Layla Mohammadi) telling us she a child of divorce – not her parents but her two countries, Iran and America. Once Iran was in love with America but things went sour. In this funny, clever way, the American-born Iranian-American Leila describes how she feels split between the two cultures – too American for Iran, too Iranian for American – so she might as well be herself – with a little help from Cyndi Lauper. Leila is a free-spirited, snarky, bisexual filmmaker, who is the only daughter in a family of boys, in this spirited coming-of-age story of a daughter who is always at odds with her more traditional mother. Winner of the Audience Award at Sundance, The Persian Version is both insightful and a whole lot of fun, a bundle-of-energy film that goes off in unexpected directions, revealing secrets and surprises with heart and humor, as it explores this crazy family and a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: The Persian Version

Directors: Maryam Keshavar

Release Date: October 21, 2021

Running Time: 107 minutes

Language: English and Farsi with English subtitles

Screenwriters: Maryam Keshavar

Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Jamie Broadnax, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).