Clashes of cultures and filial bonding in “THE PERSIAN VERSION” | MOVIE REVIEW

Using narration, sprightly pop music, animation and a buoyant dance number, Maryam Kesharvarz’s semi-autobiographical “The Persian Version” announces its unabashed free spirit from the opening moments.

Leila (an electrifying Layla Mohammadi) tells the story of her experiences being an openly gay woman in a Persian-American family. Comparing Iran and America to divorced parents, the young woman has attempted to bridge a gap between the two since she was a child.

A writer brimming with ambition, Leila is determined to be “an Iranian-American Martin Scorsese” until an unplanned pregnancy complicates her life. At a Halloween party, Leila has a one-night stand with Maximillian (Tom Byrne, channeling Hugh Grant). While Leila identifies as gay, she got turned on by Max’s costume, which he wears on stage in a production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” “Men who look like drag queens turn me on,” Leila says.

Embracing her sexuality and reveling in her single life, it is this freedom that puts her at odds with her family’s
traditional beliefs, represented in Leila’s relationship with her mother Shireen (an award-worthy Niousha Noor), who is harsh with her daughter. Shireen carved out a successful life in America. After her husband’s heart problems, she got an education, becoming a businesswoman while piloting a household filled with children.

Kesharvarz’s screenplay gets to honesty through Leila and Shireen’s relationship and the worlds of conflict between them. There is anger and impatience, but also empathy, respect, and love. Like the mother/daughter connections in films such as Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club” and James L. Brooks’s “Terms of Endearment,” “The Persian Version” sidesteps cliches. Through their family history, Kesharvarz seeks to probe the soul of these two women and find the heart that connects them, no matter the wars they wage on one another.

“The Persian Version” gets its title from the two separate tellings of Leila’s family history. Kesharvarz shows how immigrant families sometimes present two versions of themselves, a necessity, sometimes, when one lives in a country other than their homeland. Cultures are reinvented and histories erased. As the film instructs (perhaps its most important lesson), whatever your culture or heritage, it is up to the families to keep traditions alive while accepting change and personal growth.

From the family members to the most minor characters, this is a film that radiates with life. The moments of humor, the dancing, the romance, and the emotions all have an organic feel. Not since Mira Nair’s wonderfully vivacious masterwork “Monsoon Wedding” has there been a motion picture this in tune with the culture it represents.

As the film reveals itself, it is through the history of her mother that Leila’s story is told. Using flashbacks, Kesharvarz shows how both Leila and her mother are shaped by the complexities of their heritage. By the end, we have a deeper understanding of the emotional bonds between them, bonds that could never be broken.

Deservedly winning the Audience Award for U.S. Dramatic Feature and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Maryam Kesharvarz has given cinema one of the true pleasures of 2023. “The Persian Version” is a sincere work, a celebration of culture and family, a love letter to the bond between mother and daughter, and a heartfelt dedication to all Iranian women.

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