From 1945’s Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford, to last year’s Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s clear that, throughout film history, there has been no shortage of stories that put the ever-complex relationship between mothers and daughters under the microscope. Even more remarkable is how all these films — across space, time, and culture no less — simultaneously maintain a universality in their narratives while offering specific nuggets of truth that are unique to their own worlds.
Adding its voice to the choir, with aplomb too, is The Persian Version. Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, the film follows Leila (Layla Mohammadi), an Iranian-American woman who has always had a contentious relationship with her immigrant mother Shireen (Niousha Noor). Their relationship reaches a boiling point when Leila’s father Ali Reza (Bijan Daneshmand) undergoes a heart transplant. While her entire family gathers around his hospital bed — she has more brothers than you can count — Leila is ordered by her mother to stay at home to take care of Mamanjoon (Bella Warda).
It’s through her time spent with Mamanjoon that Leila finally decides to confront the long-standing conflict that has seemingly rooted itself between her and her mother. Hearing Mamanjoon’s stories of Shireen’s past effectively shows Leila a different side to her mother that she never knew she had. As The Persian Version flits back and forth between the past and present and between America and Iran, we see how even the slightest change in perspective can allow us to see, perhaps even appreciate, a situation in a whole new light.
Foremost, Keshavarz script is ultra-sharp, positioning Iran and America as two former lovers reeling from a bad break-up, thereby rendering Iranian-Americans as maladjusted children of divorce with two separate living arrangements that don’t really feel like home. It’s through this metaphor that Keshavarz hones in on that “in-limbo” feeling common among children of immigrants: of being part of two cultures while feeling like you don’t belong to either. But, in a stroke of genius, she doesn’t allow us to wallow in self-pity. In fact, Keshavarz takes great care in warmly welcoming us into the Jamshidpour household, which may not be perfect, but it cannot be denied that the energy is as chaotic as it is infectious.
The production and costume designers (which include Amber Unkle and Firat Yunluel, and Dila Bayrak and Burcu Yamak, respectively, from the New York team) deserve applause for their work. Notably, the Jamshidpour home boasts a lived-in quality that makes it feel as if we are dropping in on our own extended family. The design team also nails the challenge of successfully bringing us back in time across multiple decades, which is no small feat when you consider that The Persian Version is an indie film. There’s a tactility to their work that grounds us so that we never get lost in our time-travels.
Of course, what’s most remarkable about Keshavarz’s film is how it never hesitates to venture into the darkest corners of Leila and Shireen’s relationship and individual histories — which are marked by, among many things, miscarriages, neglect, and homophobia — but it manages to do so with a pop music-like energy. In fact, Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” serves as the sonic and emotional thesis of the film: in their own, different ways, both Leila and Shireen fight to thrive in a world whose rules weren’t made to win them any advantages, and they tackle each hurdle with wit, a wry sense of humour, and, especially in Shireen’s case, big hair and vibrant blazers.
In this regard, Mohammadi and Noor are sublime in their roles, with the latter in particular being nothing short of perfection. Mohammadi wears Leila’s heart on her sleeve, and her plight for her immigrant mother’s approval will surely be all too familiar for diasporic audiences. Noor, on the other hand, turns in a more restrained performance. She may come across as somewhat callous at first, but as we learn more about her past, we learn to appreciate her cutting remarks and no-nonsense attitude. These are, after all, traces of the emotional scars left behind by a life torn apart. With just a glance — and enviable talent — Noor communicates the ghosts of Shireen’s past. If seeing her heart break on-screen won’t inspire you to call your own mom, nothing will.
Indeed, it’s hard not to feel healed in some way — or if not healed, then, at the very least, hopeful — after watching The Persian Version. Especially for where we are in the world today — between genocide happening in front of our eyes and, more immediately felt, the cost of living creeping towards unaffordable — hope can feel in short supply. What Keshavarz's film shows us is that, flaws and mess and all, family, whatever that may look like, is who we have to lean on.