Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical “The Persian Version” is a bit overwhelming at times as the writer-director focuses on three generations of Iranian women narrated in the present day (2000ish) by the film’s protagonist Leila (Layla Mohammadi) a divorced, gay, and unexpectedly pregnant budding filmmaker. She’s the only daughter in a large immigrant family consisting of eight brothers raised by a domineering mother (Niousha Noor) with a fascinating backstory in the vibrant, fast-paced comedy packed with plenty of laughs and heartfelt emotions. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Somehow Keshavarz manages to tell three stories in under two hours. These days, with three-hour-plus running times, that is an amazing feat. Rather than divide the film into chapters, the writer-director jumps around decades, going from the 60s to 2000s using colorful and bold intertitles to keep the audience on track. For the most part, it works but it can be confusing at times.
As the wonderful song “Chaise Longue” by Wet Leg gets the party started, twenty-something Leila (Mohammadi) walks the streets of New York on the way to a Halloween party while carrying a surfboard dressed in a hijab with a bikini bottom, a metaphor for the upcoming clash of the titans between traditional and modern cultures.
Leila, a queer aspiring filmmaker, wins the costume contest beating out Maximilian (Tom Byrne) who’s dressed in his “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” costume (he’s playing the lead on Broadway) and after eyeballing each other, the two find themselves having sex after Leila mistakes Maximillian for a drag queen (which turns her on). Leila is divorced after her marriage to Elena (Mia Foo) fell apart when the budding filmmaker made her career the top priority.
Soon Leila finds herself pregnant (awkward) with Maximillian’s child and after months of ghosting him, she shows up at the theater to break the news. Byrne’s Max, sounding like a young Hugh Grant, wants to help raise the baby and suggests they give dating a try. This leads to a funny scene around the dinner table as Leila introduces Max to her family while announcing her pregnancy. “You are pregnant by a gay guy” comments one brother, leading Maximilian to announce, “I’m not gay” while Leila reminds everyone that she’s still gay, “I just happened to get pregnant.”
The relationship between Leila and her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) is a bit rocky because of Leila’s LGTBQ lifestyle and the fact that she’s always been a rebel. The character is based on Keshavarz who couldn’t tell her story without telling her mother and grandmother’s stories.
When the film jumps back to Leila’s childhood and the focus shifts to Shireen’s story, “The Persian Version” becomes a fascinating and inspirational story filled with misogynism as we head to Brooklyn in the 80s where Shireen finds herself having to provide for the family after her husband, doctor Ali Reza (Bijan Daneshmand) suffers a health setback. She gets her GED, followed by a realtor license while passing up her male colleagues in sales by catering to immigrants when no one in the firm wants to deal with them. Noor is the heart of the film which remains focused on the bond between a mother and her daughter. The Iranian-American actress who has appeared on HBO’s “Here and Now” and the psychological thriller “The Night” delivers an amazing performance.
When Leila’s grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda) dispenses advice it’s very funny. Her recommendation to avoid getting pregnant shocks Leila as does the scandalous story about Shireen’s childhood which led to the family leaving Iran for America. Newcomer Kamand Shafiesabet is impressive as young 13-year-old Shireen who is forced into adulthood by becoming pregnant and that’s just the beginning of her arduous journey out of adolescence.
Narrated by Layla Mohammadi and filled with quirky moments including actors breaking the fourth wall, “The Persian Version” is a vibrant comedy that perfectly balances the film’s dramatic overtone with continuous pockets of levity. It’s a story of determination and independence, filled with headstrong female characters overcoming misogynistic prejudice. It’s also about the American Dream for immigrants, and finally about the close bond between mothers and daughters. Oh yeah, and it’s a lot of fun. A dance sequence to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is guaranteed to put a big smile on your face.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters