Review: In the ‘The Persian Version,’ generations of independent Iranian women find their lane

A woman walks through street traffic.
Layla Mohammadi in the movie “The Persian Version.”
(Yiget Eken / Sony Pictures Classics)
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Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s lively sophomore feature “The Persian Version” is an energetic and enjoyable memoir of a film, if a bit busy. In telling her family’s story of immigrating from Iran to New York, Keshavarz has a lot to say, and she wants to say it all, at once. But there’s no denying the self-reflective and humorous charm of “The Persian Version,” which won the Screenwriting and Audience awards at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It’s just a little bit harried.

In “The Persian Version,” Keshavarz celebrates the intergenerational connection of mothers and daughters. Billed as a “true story, sort of,” she crams her life story (at least the major beats) as well as her mother’s into this film, which sometimes feels like two or three movies stitched together. That she manages to deftly juggle multiple timelines spanning two countries, flashbacks, medical emergencies, ironic fourth wall-breaking and a couple of dance breaks is impressive, because despite the breakneck pace, it’s not hard to keep track of everything.

Layla Mohammadi stars as Leila, an aspiring filmmaker still reeling from her divorce from Elena (Mia Foo). During a costume party, she hooks up with a leggy blonde, who is actually a man in a Hedwig costume (Tom Byrne) because he’s starring in the musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” This out-of-character heterosexual tryst results in a pregnancy and despite the complicated relationship, Leila decides to keep the baby. Meanwhile, her father is waiting for a heart transplant, and Leila and her eight brothers and her mother have taken to his hospital bedside. There is, of course, a wedding on the horizon. And that’s just the present-day framing device.


We flashback to Leila’s childhood growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s. Her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor) struggles to provide for her family, eventually becoming a successful real estate agent. The steely Noor plays Shireen from the ‘80s to present day, and her performance is the backbone of “The Persian Version,” while the charming Mohammadi brings a quirky, almost “Fleabag”-style of modern humor.

A woman smiles confidently in her living room.
Niousha Noor in the movie “The Persian Version.”
(Yiget Eken / Sony Pictures Classics)

Mother and daughter have been at odds, but it’s not until Leila, tasked with staying with her grandmother Mamanjoon (Bella Warda) while the rest of the family is at the hospital, learns more about her mother’s backstory in Iran and what brought her parents to America. Cue another flashback, in which the young Kamand Shafieisabet plays teenage Shireen, married off to a village doctor at the age of 14, grappling with tragedies far beyond her years.

Each aspect of the story — Leila’s unusual romantic life, Shireen’s journey to becoming a real estate mogul and her youth in Iran — could have been its own movie, and in fact, these chapters might have been better served with more development and room to breathe. They feel wrestled into a narrative that ties all the themes together under two hours, but it’s all a bit contrived and somewhat unwieldy.

Yet it’s easy to forgive when the movie is so likable, heartfelt and spirited. Keshavarz spins a lot of plates in “The Persian Version” and we can see the effort, but she keeps them all in the air.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.


'The Persian Version'

Rating: R, for language and some sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: Now in limited release