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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Movie Review: ‘The Persian Version’: Mother-daughter dramedy has an identity crisis

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

In the cheeky voice-over narration provided by the protagonist of the semi-autobiographical “The Persian Version,” Maryam Keshavarz’s at times blithe and at times blue dramedy about the clash and connection between Leila (Layla Mohammadi), a bisexual Iranian American aspiring filmmaker, and her more conservative mother Shireen (Niousha Noor), Leila tells us that she dreams of becoming the “Iranian American Martin Scorsese.”

It’s a joke, but not an especially apt one. Although Leila may be serious, writer-director Keshavarz doesn’t seem to have any such cinematic aspirations. With Leila frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the camera, a la “Fleabag” – in a family history punctuated by a couple of larky dance numbers that interrupt a narrative jumping back and forth between 1960s Iran and present-day Brooklyn, with stops in between – “The Persian Version” plays more like bittersweet melodrama in a bubble gum wrapper: cartoony on the outside, cloyingly sentimental on the inside.

Leila, who has eight brothers, each of whom is some stereotype ranging from hippie to doctor to greaser, says she doesn’t feel at home in either America or Iran, describing her identity crisis – “too Iranian in America, too American in Iran” – as the result of the post-revolution “divorce” between her adopted country and the country of her parents’ birth. There’s another identity issue here, too: Leila has a female ex (Mia Foo) and a male beau (sort of). She’s segued from what she calls her lesbian marriage to a fling with an actor (Tom Byrne) who performs in drag. Neither relationship sits well with her mother and father (Bijan Daneshmand), the latter of whom who is awaiting heart transplant surgery as the film gets underway.

That’s what’s happening just in the present day. And in any other film, it would probably be enough for a whole movie.

Arguably, however, “The Persian Version” doesn’t really belong to Leila at all, but to Shireen. The third act turns into a lengthy flashback that takes us away from the ostensible protagonist’s framing story to an episode from Shireen’s youth, when Leila’s mother was a child bride at 13, married off to a 22-year-old doctor in rural Iran. References to an unspecified “scandal” have teased us throughout much of the early part of the film, with hints dropped here and there by Leila’s grandmother, Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), until the film suddenly shifts gears dramatically and drops us into a tonally different movie.

It’s a tricky balancing acting that even Scorsese might have trouble with, and Keshavarz doesn’t quite pull off the tonal, temporal and geographic displacement. The extended flashback – which dramatizes a story that Mamanjoon is telling Leila – while moving, feels like a device to cauterize the severed bond between mother and daughter. But it’s more than a little jarring, with the not-quite-parallel storylines never fully syncing up in the film.

“The Persian Version” is an ambitious effort to suture up the rift between past and present, parent and child. But like its heroine, it also suffers from a bit of split personality. It’s a tale with too much drama for the candy-colored comedy of its telling, and too much comedy for the drama to leave much of a mark.