Having multiple identities isn’t easy, and it can often lead to both internal and external conflict. But there are also advantages to being part of more than one culture and having influences that aren’t all the same. Being raised by immigrant parents means that aspects of their heritage and past will be mixed with assimilated customs of the new country. The Persian Version unpacks the effect that can have on a person in an enjoyable film that spans genres and manages to tell a few separate stories without feeling overstuffed.
Leila (Layla Mohammadi) is one of nine siblings in an Iranian-American family living in New Jersey. She’s also a lesbian and partly blames her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) for the breakup of her marriage. But she’s more than capable of screwing things up on her own, and her father’s heart transplant serves as a time for the family to gather and for Leila to really consider where her life is headed. As she bonds with her grandmother, Mamanjoon (Bella Warda), she learns that she and her mother may not be nearly as different as she always thought.
This film features so many different styles and cinematic devices that it could feel like way too much, yet it keeps moving constantly, making it a thoroughly consistent delight. Playful flashback sequences reveal that Leila grew up smuggling Cyndi Lauper tapes to Iran, and she frequently pauses to address the camera directly and explain certain facets of her life and culture. When she finds out more about her mother’s time as a young mother in Iran, a younger Shireen (Kamand Shafieisabet) takes over as the fourth wall-breaker, owning her own story in the same way that Leila always seeks to do.
The Persian Version runs just 107 minutes and still includes so many characters and plot developments that audiences should be entirely engaged for its entire runtime. Some of Leila’s siblings barely get more than a brief introduction, while others serve a greater purpose in her life and the overarching story. But this film is mostly about Leila and her mother, who also gets a major spotlight midway through the film as her unstoppable spirit comes into focus when her husband’s health suddenly declines and she must pivot to become the family breadwinner.
There are several superb performances in this film, and who specifically deserves praise depends only on where in the film’s runtime it is. Mohammadi is gregarious and spunky, and she’s also prone to embarrassing moments like donning a gorilla mask in a market to try to avoid being recognized by her ex, and Mohammadi owns those in a very funny way. Noor presents a more confident and stable character in Shireen, who encounters plenty of adversity but is determined to work through it. And, in the film’s third act, Shafieisabet embodies the younger Shireen with her own resolve, but one that must shine through differently in a very particular circumstance.
This film, which took home both the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival, is a very fun watch, punctuated with moments of drama that feel honest and well-placed throughout it. Its best asset is that, though it has so much to cover, it chooses the exact right moment on which to end. Packing a great deal into a relatively brief runtime is no easy feat, and going out on just the right note is even more impressive. Keshavarz makes a triumphant return to Sundance after winning the same audience award for her 2011 feature Circumstance, and her latest film is a proud love letter to the Iranian-American community that should be easy to appreciate for all audiences.
The Persian Version is screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.