The Odyssey of 'The Girl in the Sneakers'


"The Girl in the Sneakers" opens in a beautiful park where two teen-agers, a pretty girl and a tall, nice-looking boy, stroll along, chatting about the need to fulfill their dreams. The boy talks about wanting always to be on the move, agreeing that he would need a companion on the road--and who would be better than the girl, he says, assuring her that, of course, they first would be married.

Just as he talks about wanting to fly away, a bearded man approaches them, asking politely though sternly if they are related.

Shockingly, the next thing we know, the kids are hauled off to jail. For that park is in Tehran, where a teenage boy and girl's unchaperoned walk can be cause for arrest.

The girl, Tadayi (Pegah Ahangarani), who is 15, says that she met the boy, Aideen (Majid Hajizadeh), 11 days earlier and that they had taken a stroll together four times, including today's interrupted walk. And yes, she has had the temerity to ask Aideen for his phone number.

Tadayi's parents react with hysteria and force her to submit to an exam to determine whether she is still a virgin. They blame each other for not keeping a closer eye on their daughter, who is informed that from now on her mother will drive her to school and her father will pick her up and take her home. This will cut off any possibility that she might strike up a conversation with a boy while walking to or from school.

The parents' shrill behavior does not grow out of a proclaimed religious conviction but sheer, unadulterated terror that their reputation--and especially that of their daughter--could in some way be hopelessly compromised.

The mother feels guilty about her extreme reaction and tries to make amends, but when she drops Tadayi off at school the next morning, the free-spirited teenager, in reaction to all that has been heaped upon her, runs away.

This revealing prologue to this powerful and uncompromising film, based on a real-life incident, is worth outlining in detail because it moves so joltingly fast you may miss some of these details, all of which are telling in regard to the status of women in Iran. Director Rassul Sadr Ameli is fair-minded, however, in his depiction of the policeman and the parents, who live in a society governed by the dictates of a highly conservative religion.

In any event, Tadayi is now propelled into a classic, far-ranging urban adventure as she wanders around vast and bustling Tehran. For all her spirit of independence, Tadayi is a sheltered, upper-middle-class girl who naively takes Aideen's ramblings literally.

What Tadayi must come to terms with, short of either contacting her parents or returning home on her own power, is that she has been left to her own devices and is more vulnerable to danger than she could possibly realize.

One incident flows gracefully into the next--sometimes scary, sometimes amusing, sometimes both--revealing mainstream urban society's indifference to Tadayi, who wanders with increasing anguish until she crosses paths with Mahpareh (Akram Mohammadi), a sturdy survivor of the streets with a 7-year-old boy. The older woman offers her shelter in her shantytown home, only the most temporary of solutions.

What Tadayi has unwittingly embarked on is a crash course in the harsh realities of the street; she must grow up in a flash if she is to survive. Her plight may be universal but has direct and stinging implications for Iranians in regard to the position of women.

"The Girl in the Sneakers," anchored by a faultless, award-winning portrayal by Ahangarani in a most demanding role, is a harrowing work in the neo-realist manner of Iran's strongest films.

Following children on an odyssey is a favorite device of Iranian filmmakers wishing to avoid direct social criticism, but by making his heroine 15 years old instead of 5 or 10, Ameli has also raised the ante considerably--and courageously. His film is yet another reason why Iranian cinema is among the most vital and challenging in the world today.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult themes and situations.

'The Girl in the Sneakers'

Pegah Ahangarani: Tadayi

Majid Hajizadeh: Aideen

Akram Mohammadi: Mahpareh

An Iranian Film Society presentation of the Art Bureau of Milad Film. Director Rassul Sadr Ameli. Screenplay by Peyman Qasemkhani, Fereydoun Farhudi. Cinematographer Dariuch Ayyari. Editor Mostafa Kherqe-poush. Music Iraj Panahi. Art director Ali Abedini. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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