The Persian Version


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Persian Version
"Describing itself as ‘a true story – sort of’, The Persian Version blends comedy and family drama to great effect, showing us a good deal more than its heroine and narrator intends us to see." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The only daughter in the family, with eight brothers, Leila (Layla Mohammadi) is used to being spoiled. She’s also used to her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) being overprotective and trying to change the way she lives, but much as she likes to complain about this, she’s never really asked itself why it’s the case. Growing up as part of an immigrant Persian community in Brooklyn, she’s taken a lot of things for granted. It takes a pair of unexpected events to prompt her to examine their relationship more deeply, and to become curious about the life her parents left behind.

The first of these is a crisis of her own making. Attending a fancy dress party as ‘Miss Burkatini’, in a swimsuit and hijab with a surfboard under her arm, she meets Max (Tom Byrne), whom she takes for a drag queen. He tries to explain that he’s actually playing Hedwig at a nearby theatre and is still in costume (“a thespian not a lesbian,” as one of her brothers puts it), but she’s already dragged him into bed. Being drunk and used to sleeping with women, she neglects to take certain elementary precautions, and finds herself pregnant as a result. Little time is wasted on deciding what to do about this. She’s pretty quick to realise what she wants, but the process of figuring out the details changes everything.

Describing itself as ‘a true story – sort of’, The Persian Version blends comedy and family drama to great effect, showing us a good deal more than its heroine and narrator intends us to see. Maryam Keshavarz’s script deftly coordinates the chaos of the family members’ lives so that we can form connection with them as individuals and appreciate the layered nature of their interactions. We are made privy to in-jokes and eye rolls, and feel the warmth of the love that holds them all together in spite of their differences. Observing the way that religion and superstition play a role in Shireen’s interpretation of the world around her, and sometimes other people’s, Keshavarz incorporates an element of magical realism which adds to the comedy but also deepens our understanding of the family’s experience.

Leila describes herself as coming from two cultures which used to be madly in love and then went through a bitter divorce, but she doesn’t really know much about the old country. Enlightenment comes from her grandmother – who is notably more liberal than her mother – in extended flashback sequences about her parents’ marriage. The dramatic cultural divide between urban and rural Iran is also important to this, as Shireen struggles to cope in her new husband’s village, isolated, deprived of opportunity and surrounded by other women who distract themselves by engaging in spiteful gossip.

The mixed cultural origins of the story are also reflected in the form of the film, which slips in dance numbers for Persian audiences but makes them fit naturally, as part of the story. These include a scene of Iranian women dancing to Girls Just Wanna have Fun, originally written as a satirical song, whose political meaning changes in that context. Though the film is always woman-centred, it doesn’t make excuses for its female characters, and indeed it’s the men who generally show more empathy. Leila’s self-centredness is a major limiting factor in her life, especially as she wants to make it as a writer. In between other events she continually texts her ex, Elena, still hoping that they can get back together after months of being told that’s not going to happen.

The production design and costume design are wonderful throughout and add layers of additional depth to the characters. The family home is a patchwork of pieces of 12 different lives lived there over decades, unfolding outwards into what we see of the surrounding area. Scenes near the end, set at a wedding, both celebrate and poke fun at Persian American culture in ways which will delight audiences familiar with it. The film very effectively straddles the line between speaking to the community directly and helping outsiders to engage with it. It also maintains a level of specificity which ensure that viewers won’t mistake for some kind of generic cultural guide.

High-spirited and intense, Leila is a character who is fun to be around, and the film shows us who she is and how she comes to be this way without undermining her unique qualities. it’s a consistently entertaining piece of work with more depth than one expects from the format, and you should catch it if you can.

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2024
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When a large Iranian-American family gathers for the patriarch's heart transplant, a family secret is uncovered that catapults the estranged mother and daughter into an exploration of the past. Toggling between the United States and Iran over decades, mother and daughter discover they are more alike than they know.

Director: Maryam Keshavarz

Writer: Maryam Keshavarz

Starring: Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Bijan Daneshmand, Shervin Alenabi

Year: 2023

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US


Sundance 2023

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