The thorny, complicated history between the United States and Iran is infinitely more complex for those of the Persian diaspora living in America. It’s this nuanced tension trickling down to identity — between being too much this and not enough that in either homeland — that writer-director-producer Maryam Keshavarz (“Circumstance”) explores in her third film, “The Persian Version,” a decades and generation-spanning dramedy.
The particularly precarious position of women in both societies is unpacked as Leila (Layla Mohammadi, “The Sex Lives of College Girls”), who is both queer and the only daughter of a large Iranian-American family tries to make sense of her estranged relationship with her mother after she finds herself pregnant following a one-night stand.
We first meet filmmaker Lelia sometime in the mid-2000s, recently divorced from her wife, defiantly walking through the streets of New York City wearing nothing but a burkini, surfboard in hand, heading to a Halloween party. There she meets, flirts, and drunkenly hooks up with Broadway actor Max (Tom Byrne, “The Crown”), still wearing his Hedwig costume from that night’s performance.
Before Lelia learns of her surprise pregnancy, her father Ali (Bijan Daneshmand, “House of the Dragon”) is rushed to the hospital for a long-awaited heart transplant. Between this and the news of her pregnancy, Lelia begins spending more time with her eight brothers, her beloved Mamajoon (Bella Warda), and her mother Shireen (the tremendous Niousha Noor, “Kaleidoscope”).
After introducing all the major players in the story, Keshavarz haphazardly cuts to past decades to fill the audience in on the origins of Leila and Shireen’s angst. We see a trip to Iran with the two in the 1980s (where a rebellious Leila smuggles Cyndi Lauper tapes in for her relatives), Ali’s first brush with heart problems, and Shireen’s determination to take care of her family, which involves her rise as a realtor in the 1990s. The most ambitious flashback takes us to Shireen’s wedding to Ali when she was only 13 and he 22. A perspective change midway through the flashback empowers a younger version of Shireen (played by an equally tremendous Kamand Shafieisabet) to tell her story in her own words.
While these flashbacks are employed to show that Leila is more like Shireen than she realized, what they actually accomplish is establishing that perhaps a stronger film would have kept the focus solely on Shireen. The film is at its strongest whenever either actress playing Shireen is on screen, as her many complexities prove to be the most compelling arc, both narratively and emotionally.
Not only do the scenes in Leila’s present not have the same fabulistic flourishes of the flashbacks, but they’re also underwritten. In one confrontation with her ex-wife Elena, the actress playing her is tasked with finding meaning in clunky dialogue like “I don’t think you know how to love. You have too much baggage.” A later scene revealing Leila’s complacency in the dissolution of their marriage plays slightly better, but unfortunately, this relationship gets far less screen time than the screwball antics of her accidental pregnancy.
Byrne, as Max, the one night stand turned baby daddy, mostly plays the role as if he were Hugh Grant, employing the same squirrely mannerisms and neurotic breath beats that made the latter a unique star. There is no chemistry between Byrne and Mohammadi, and it’s unclear if Keshavarz, who herself identifies as bisexual, has written Lelia as such herself. The pregnancy itself never gels as a framework for the story of her place within her family or as a way for her to reflect on her mother’s experiences.
The timeline within the present also loses its way in the edit. When Ali receives his new heart, Lelia doesn’t yet know she’s pregnant. Yet, at the end of the film, Ali is still in the hospital, and Lelai is set to give birth. It’s never made clear why he’s in the hospital this long. The visits with him are few and far between. If this lack of attention was purposefully employed for emotional response (and may well have been, given information Lelia later learns about her father), Keshavarz’s execution lacks clarity.
There’s no denying the weight of “The Persian Version”’s final sequence. Yet, it’s an ending that feels rushed, both because of the sequence’s continual tonal shifts between heartfelt drama and slapstick comedy but also because Leila’s final bout of emotional maturity feels unearned. It is a testament to the strength of Noor’s extraordinarily nuanced performance that the poignancy of the ending sticks the landing. [C]