With male filmmakers dominating the medium for most of its existence, there are seemingly endless numbers of movies that mine relationships between fathers and sons. Yet the dynamic between mothers and daughters, while just as complex, has been represented far less often on screen to date. Inspired by her own life, Maryam Keshavarz’s The Persian Version explores the fraught connection between a rebellious Iranian-American woman and her more traditional mother across decades and continents. The writer-director has crafted a story that is at once universal in its appeal and unique in its telling.
The only girl amidst seven brothers, Brooklyn-born Leila (Layla Mohammadi) straddles her Iranian heritage and American citizenship—and she does it while wearing a burkini on top over cheeky bikini bottoms. At a costume party in 2000s New York, she has (what she intends to be) a one-night stand with Maximillian (Tom Byrne). Leila is recovering from the recent divorce from her wife, and Maximillian is still dressed in the wig and fishnets from his lead performance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so who can blame her?
Leila can’t get rid of Maximillian so easily when she realizes she is pregnant, and the revelation is just one more thing that comes between her and her mother, Shireen (Niousha Noor), who has struggled with Leila’s queer identity. The women have a fractious relationship while surrounded by so many men in the family, but Leila’s grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda) shares a family secret with Leila that may help her understand her mother better.
The Persian Version is a cross-generational story that moves through the ‘60s to the ‘00s in Iran, New York, and New Jersey, switching perspectives between Leila and Shireen. Both women are complex and difficult in their own ways: Leila is prickly, and Shireen is often cutting and cold in her speech to her only daughter. The pair are different but more alike than either wants to admit. Even for mothers and daughters with largely good relationships, some elements will still ring true. Meanwhile, the details of the Iranian-American culture add specificity and depth, keeping the film from feeling like something we’ve seen before, thanks to Keshavarz’s unique perspective and strong voice.
Playful and wild in its first third, The Persian Version is as ungovernable and unpredictable as its protagonist, with female-fronted rock bands accompanying direct addresses to the camera, animated overlays, and pop-culture video clips inserted into the retelling of this family’s story across the decades. There’s sadness and tragedy, but it’s also filled with joy and humor, capturing Leila’s family’s experience across the full spectrum of emotions. But in its last act, The Persian Version settles down, with a story that feels far more familiar—and less energetic—in both its beats and its telling. The film loses some of the verve that Keshavarz brought to its earlier sequences, though a mid-credits dance scene brings back some of the movie’s earlier ebullience. Yet while it feels less stylistically inventive as it winds down, it still manages to be emotionally affecting resolving the conflict between Leila and Shireen.
Keshavarz defines these two characters well, and the performances from Mohammadi and Noor help fill in any gaps in the script. By contrast, the secondary and tertiary characters get far less attention (especially the seven brothers who are primarily differentiated by their clothing), and the screenplay lacks the connective tissue that would make everyone’s actions feel more justified. Whether what’s missing was removed in editing or the script would benefit from another draft or two, the film feels like it needs a little more work to be something truly great.
Yet despite its flaws, The Persian Version is engaging and fresh. With Keshavarz at the helm, the movie is simultaneously familiar and unexpected, and its joyful approach will draw the audience into what may be an unfamiliar world for some.
“The Persian Version” is in theaters Friday.