Layla Mohammadi in The Persian Version

Film Review: The Persian Version

Film Reviews

The Persian Version
Director: Maryam Keshavarz  

Marakesh Films
In Theaters: 11.03

The bond between mothers and daughters—as well as the fierce battle of wills when they don’t see eye-to-eye—has been the subject of countless films, with Terms of Endearment, Lady Bird, Brave and Everything Everywhere All At Once being just a few classics that have tackled this theme. The Persian Version is a lively new edition to this list.

Leila (Layla Mohammadi) has never fit in. As the child of immigrant parents going back and forth between Brooklyn and Iran, she was always “too Iranian in America” and “too American in Iran.” As an adult in the early 2000s, she feels out of place in her family, especially when it comes to her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor, The Night). Leila’s life choices, from her career as a filmmaker to coming out as a lesbian, have always been met with Shireen’s stern disapproval. The tension reaches a breaking point when Leila discovers that a drunken one-night stand with a man at a party has resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. It seems like the two will never overcome their differences, and Leila questions whether she even wants Shireen to meet her granddaughter until Leila’s grandmother, Mamanjoon, shares a family secret that gives Leila a new perspective.

The Persian Version is a briskly entertaining comedy drama that won the Audience Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s the kind of indie movie that’s a real crowd pleaser as long there are crowds to watch it. There’s a My Big Fat Greek Wedding-meets-Deadpool vibe in the way that writer-director Maryam Keshavarz (Circumstance) approaches the material. Leila doesn’t just narrate, she talks directly to the camera and even literally stops the action repeatedly so that she can make her point more effectively, as does young Shireen (Kamand Shafieisabet) when the film shifts to her story in the second half. This device keeps the audience engaged even when the narrative shifts threaten to become too overwhelming, and there’s an energy to the proceedings that smoothes out the rough edges of the story structure to make for a highly satisfying experience. Music is an important element of the film, and while two dance numbers set to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” sounds like too many, there’s a poignancy, as well as a unique sound, to the second one that makes it quite magical in context.

Mohammadi has a great deal of magnetism, and she makes Leila an easy character to stick with even when her stubbornness becomes a little off-putting. Noor is perhaps even better, deftly balancing Shireen’s most disagreeable qualities with a mixture of determination and vulnerability that is captured with such humanity that it keeps her from ever feeling like just another controlling mother character taken from a template. The most intriguing performance comes from Shafieisabet as the younger Shireen, who gets married at age 13 and becomes a mother within a year or two after this. The loving and empowering portrayal of a young girl forced to grow up far too early is the strongest aspect of the film, even if the abrupt change in focus in the second half is a bit jolting. 

The Persian Version is a subversive and creative twist on the quirky, extended family comedy that overcomes muddled plotting and mediocre dialogue through boundless enthusiasm and a heart that’s always in the right place. It’s not quite like anything else in theaters right now, and if you want to see something that feels genuinely different and offers terrific performances,  I highly recommend taking the time to check this one out. –Patrick Gibbs

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