The Persian Version: A Lighthearted Dramedy That Comes Full Circle [Sundance Review]

The Persian Version still of Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and her mother Shirin (Niousha Noor) dancing alongside their family.

Generational conflict is inescapable. Parental expectations are challenging enough. But Leila (Layla Mohammadi) straddles two identities. She struggles to meld her dual Iranian and American existence in The Persian Version. The film is a dramedy premiering at Sundance Film Festival, written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz. The film is quirky and hilarious. The Persian Version captures the hardship of finding your path amidst familial strain. It traverses through a serious subject with a heavy comedic lens that breaks the fourth wall.

The Persian Version Shows The Strain When Pulled In Two Directions

The Persian Version still of director Maryam Keshavarz.
Maryam Keshavars, director of The Persian Version, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

From the opening, The Persian Version demonstrates that Maryam Keshavarz understands when to show and tell. Leila walks to a party wearing a costume that highlights her identity for audiences. A burka covers her upper body. Bikini bottoms adorn her lower half. She meets and has a one-night stand with a man she mistakes for a drag queen. After, she sneaks away. Leila narrates as images and clips of Iran and America play on screen. This fourth wall break is the first of many. She talks about when the countries were close and the hardship when they “divorced.”

There are other challenges as the only daughter in a family of eight sons. Leila traveled between the countries with her family as a kid to Iran. She loved smuggling cassettes into Iran with famous 80s artists like Cindi Lauper and Michael Jackson. Joyful as it was, there were challenges in both countries. Anyone mixed or whose parents are from another country can relate to being too much or not enough.

For Leila, it’s too Iranian or too American. Leila visits her family in New Jersey as her father is about to get a heart transplant. Her mother, Shirin (Niousha Noor), refuses to accept Leila. They both have a strong independent streak, so conflict is inevitable.

Parental Prejudice

But Shirin’s biggest gripe is that her daughter is gay. Shirin still holds onto harmful beliefs. When her mother is not saying something hurtful, she’s preventing Leila from being around the family as much as possible. The only exception is grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda). Leila watches her at home while the family visits her father. Anytime Leila tries to see her father; her mom sends her away. It’s a tale that never changes, no matter the culture. But The Persian Version puts a hilarious spin on it. The animated music and styles deliver lively fun. But there is an earnest story underneath the laughs.

The Persian Version still of Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and her mother Shirin (Niousha Noor) dancing alongside their family.
A still from The Persian Version by Maryam Keshavars, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As Leila spends time with Mamanjoon, her grandmother lets a secret slip. Leila’s mother, Shirin, did not come to America for opportunities but to flee a scandal. As she learns more about her mother’s past, she tries to understand her mother’s present. Though a bit haphazard with everything the film covers, it does not drag. The Persian Version is a whirling dervish where you barely have time to catch your breath. Moments feel like a dramedy version of The Godfather II and even shades of Goodfellas, especially given the film spans decades and moves between the U.S. and Iran.

Marvelous Cast Breathes Life Into the Film

Layla Mohammadi and Niousha Noor make the film run smoothly despite some haphazard parts. The transition from Leila to her mom’s backstory lasts longer than expected. It is not only Leila’s story but her mother’s too. Both give superb performances. Resolution is scarce by the end, but there is a sweetness despite its absence.

The Persian Version has flaws but shines with brightness and color despite its flaws. It’s a daring feature focusing on relationships rather than a tidy ending. With laughs, dance routines, and music from both countries, The Persian Version skims family conflict but makes an impact. The fourth wall breaks, allow her and her mom to speak directly to their unseen audience. It feels like a love letter for immigrant mothers and children who straddle two worlds, specifically Iranian and Iranian-American women and girls.

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