Like a messy memoir that’s chapters have been haphazardly adapted into a time-hopping film, The Persian Version is happy to give you the audiobook version of its culture and country-spanning multigenerational experience. Not content to let us simply watch its oddly framed narrative, its incessant narration buries its anecdotes in snark. Filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’s tale of an Iranian immigrant mother and her first-generation daughter attempts to cover a sweeping breadth of drama in both characters’ lives, but the voiceover-heavy storytelling is exhausting and weightless, despite Keshavarz’s clear affection for and closeness to these women.
Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and her colorful family are going through a lot. Dad is getting a heart transplant, a boy band’s worth of stereotyped brothers watch on, and supermom Shireen (Niousha Noor) is doing it all, including looking down on queer Leila’s romantic life. The latter most recently involves getting knocked up by the straight Brit currently playing Hedwig on Broadway. But, as you might expect, the two women have a bit more in common than meets the eye. There’s a lot to cover—including Shireen’s entire life, before and after coming to the U.S.—and Leila’s here to tell it to us directly, with all the flair and nuance of a Disney Channel sitcom. There’s a lot of voice in Keshavarz’s third feature, and both ways I mean that (in a “told, not shown” way and in a pumped-full of personality way) make it inelegantly feel like a debut.
Whatever cultural specificity The Persian Version has, and there’re some endearing scenes when the film flits back to Iran, is hamstrung by obviousness and self-conscious quirkiness. It feels like every other over-explained indie dramedy that relies on its direct-address lead (oftentimes, including this time, a writer) to win us over. It’s a risky move, considering it almost never works. Here, it goes so poorly that when the film stops or slows down time, it’s an insult to injury—the film already slogs by, inching across the screen like a put-upon internet video crawling through pipes clogged by someone in another room torrenting a whole season of TV. Mohammadi simply can’t sell what little she’s given, and the brash material doesn’t set her up for success. With such flashy stories at hand, either filled with realistic twists or fantastical Only In New York eccentricity, it’s kind of amazing that The Persian Version moves so slowly.
This partially comes from its structure. Leila’s a writer, as the movie enjoys reminding us, so her story and that of her mother are sometimes (not always, because the film loses this subplot from time to time) told through the framing device of a screenplay, one making the most of a woman at a turning point and a mother whose hardships have—apparently—never felt more relatable. But the dots are never quite connected between the women. That’s mostly due to Leila’s ridiculous and relatively uninteresting story being treated by its own film as…ridiculous and relatively uninterested. Her own ex-wife (yes, she has an ex-wife and I’ve delivered this information with as much care and set-up as the film) is barely a sketch. The narrative favors its flashbacks, and its unevenness in this regard can make the film’s back-and-forths feel like non sequiturs.
That said, The Persian Version is best when it finally drops its insufferable pretensions and settles down to tell a single story. Scenes are often so disparate in tone and content—with flippant lightness accompanying intense homophobia, and cartoonish ‘80s girlbossiness accompanying a racism-filled real estate segment—that it’s hard to find something truly coherent to hold onto. Unclear editing does this aesthetic and narrative maelstrom no favors. But it’s always clear that Shireen is the star, whether she’s played by the exhausted, winning Noor, or Kamand Shafieisabet, who brings a quiet yearning to Shireen’s younger self. Shafieisabet leads the film’s best section, which is isolating and engaging when reflecting on Shireen’s early teendom and marriage. Keshavarz is playing a numbers game as she throws stuff at the wall, but she’s clearly a competent storyteller when her flashier impulses are restrained. When she lets them loose, you get Leila’s tacky ramblings.
There’s a reason the family epic spun by Keshavarz namechecks Martin Scorsese, but it’s an unflattering comparison to draw, and one that does its own stylized immigrant tale ambitions an injustice. With such a scattered focus and lopsided narrative, The Persian Version might love its characters, but it’s still working out how to best tell their story.
Director: Maryam Keshavarz
Writer: Maryam Keshavarz
Starring: Layla Mohammadi, Niousha Noor, Kamand Shafieisabet, Bella Warda, Chiara Stella, Bijan Daneshmand, Shervin Alenabi
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.