“The Persian Version” (2023) – “Oh girls. Girls just wanna have fun. They just wanna. They just wanna.” – “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1983), performed by Cyndi Lauper and written by Robert Hazard
Within the first 10 minutes (or so) of director/writer Maryam Keshavarz’s “The Persian Version” – with a “Based on a True Story…Sort Of” tagline on the movie poster – a pre-teen Leila (Chiara Stella) sneaks Michael Jackson, Prince, and Cyndi Lauper cassette tapes on a New York City trip to Iran.
She then leads an endearing romp, a choreographed music video, in an Iranian neighborhood with elderly, middle-aged, and young locals dancing to Ms. Lauper’s most famous song. The sweet moment – set in the 1980s – highlights that this bright-eyed, youthful Iranian American embraces her heritage and both countries.
However, Keshavarz’s movie opens during the 2000s with a 20-something Leila (Layla Mohammadi) hooking up with Maximillian (Tom Byrne), a man dressed in drag as Hedwig, from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, at a party, so at first and second glances, “Version” seems to be a straight-up comedy.
It’s not. Save for a few instances – like an awkward family dinner where Maximillian is the guest, and Leila’s mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) points out that her daughter plays basketball and her son cheerleads – the intended jokes don’t land, unfortunately.
This autobiographical (sort of) dramedy follows Leila’s and Shireen’s individual stories and their collective combative relationship. However, sitting down and following the narrative – with constantly shifting timelines (from the ’60s, ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s), desperately needed narration from Leila and a younger Shireen (Kamand Shafieisabet), and dizzying shreds of subplots, including a fractured romantic relationship, an incapacitated relative, a budding real estate career, a couple of pregnancies, a family wedding, and eight brothers who randomly appear and disappear in unison – can be a conflicting experience.
Leila and Shireen endure a messy rapport, and Keshavarz’s screenplay follows their vibe with an authentic but chaotic collection of ideas scattered across the screen for 107 minutes. Ultimately, there is a method to Keshavarz’s “madness”, one steeped in earnest intentions and execution in the third act, but the ever-changing tones and time periods highlight a mad, madcap, murky, and makeshift cinematic journey.
On the bright side, Noor is compelling as a resolute matriarch, strong and determined, who ceaselessly focuses on her family’s well-being, first and foremost, even if Leila and she don’t connect. Shireen loves her daughter, but her motherly burden of obligations and Leila’s teenage and 20-something free-spirited exuberance constantly clash. Mohammadi – in a breakout role – exudes charisma in her first feature film and could easily fit and shine in future rom-coms. She – regrettably – doesn’t get enough screen time to show off and stretch these romantic-comedy muscles. Some of the most engaging moments are between Leila and Maximillian, even though the film doesn’t explore their potential or lack thereof because Leila is gay, which leaves him in a state of limbo or confusion.
There’s no confusion about Keshavarz’s desire to include plenty of calls to her and Leila’s Iranian culture, with history lessons about U.S./Iran political relations, Rostam Batmanglij’s lively score, several shots of traditional food, and Dila Bayrak and Burcu Yamak’s sharp costume designs. Bayrak and Yamak also get the ’80s attire perfectly and tonally right, complete with a leopard-print headband. Ah, ’80s fashion.
Visually, “The Persian Version” offers plenty to absorb, including the aforementioned impromptu music video, a random cheerleader dance, a festive wedding, living conditions in an isolated desert, and bustling conversations around congested dining rooms and hospital rooms.
However, with the constant shifting tones, ideas, and decades that crowd the big screen, maybe Lauper’s “Time After Time” (1983) is a better fit here.
“Caught up in circles. Confusion is nothing new.”
1/2 out of
Written and directed by: Maryam Keshavarz
Starring: Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Bella Warda, Bijan Daneshmand, and Tom Byrne
Runtime: 107 minutes
Image credits: Sony Pictures Classics