This review of The Persian Version contains mild spoilers.
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Hey, remember yesterday when I was like “Our moms are real people too, and maybe they have shit going on that we don’t know about that could be a key to understanding our relationship with them!”? WELL GUESS WHAT?! I saw Maryam Kesharvarz’s The Persian Version and it screamed at me that EYE WAZ CORRECT!
This film marks the Iranian-American director’s queer return to Sundance! She was there in 2011 with Circumstance, another queer film that low-key has some character similarities to her latest film.
The Persian Version is a time jump film, we hop back and forth from the 50s to the early 2000s with Leila (Layla Mohammadi, My Love) a QUEER WRITER (yes that deserved all caps) and only daughter of Ali (Bijan Daneshmand, House of The Dragon) and Shirin (Niousha Noor, Kaleidoscope). One year at Thanksgiving — also the anniversary of her grandfather’s death — her mother admits that she is not vibin’ with the queer shit, calls Leila selfish, and tells her (and her girlfriend that she bought with her) to leave. After that, their relationship hits a quick and sharp decline; it already was strained, but now it’s nearing non-existent.
So you might be reading this and be like “Ugh, another movie where a queer person gets kicked out the family for being queer” and essentially you are correct. But what makes this one different to me, is that the queer character isn’t taking to heart that something is wrong with them. Oftentimes when this happens to characters in film, they go so far inward. They put it all on themselves to figure out “What is wrong with me?” instead of asking others “What is wrong with you?”
Leila, to me, hadn’t done anything but be herself in a family that was asking her not to be since she was younger, and not just in terms of sexuality. She played basketball, wore mismatched outfits that she loved, and wanted to write, while her family — namely her mother — wanted her to not be “so much.” She didn’t discourage her but she didn’t particularly encourage her either. So in her adulthood, when her father’s health is in decline, she inserts herself back into the life of her family and in doing so learns family secrets from her mamajoon (Bella Warda, Radio Dreams).
These secrets allow her to see and understand her mother more — but doesn’t excuse her actions. I loved that, because even though someone has had pain in their past, it doesn’t give them a free pass to mistreat you in the future, even if they are family. It can help you understand where their actions are coming from and allows them to extend grace, and that’s all you can ask for.
Kesharvarz wanted to tell an immigrant story, and the film is based on her own life. It’s about an Iranian-American family, and it’s one of three films (including Shayda and Joonam) at Sundance this year by an Iranian woman. All three allow the stories of Iranian women to be told and for their voices to be heard, while countless others are fighting to not be silenced and being jailed, beaten, and murdered while doing so.
I often talk about how film can be fun and silly, but my favorite part about it is connection. Kesharvarz uses family secrets, pop culture, and lived experiences to connect us to a full and sweet story of mothers, daughters, and womanhood. There are twists and surprises, but what I took away most is the importance of understanding. We may never know every detail of someone’s past, but as you learn it a bit of understanding can go a long way.