Sundance movie review: Joyous 'Persian Version' is feel-good movie of fest

Layla Mohammadi (L) and Niousha Noor dance with their extended family. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute
Layla Mohammadi (L) and Niousha Noor dance with their extended family. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Jan. 26 (UPI) -- The Persian Version, which premiered Saturday at the Sundance Film Festival, is an invigorating mother and daughter story. Using tried-and-true cinematic techniques, and breaking a few narrative rules, The Persian Version is pure heart manifested on screen.

Leila (Layla Mohammadi) tells the audience the story of her Iranian-American family. Leila speaks directly to the camera, and so does her younger self (Chiara Stella) in flashbacks.


Her parents moved to New York when America welcomed doctors from Iran. By the mid-'80s, the countries were at war and both sides resented Leila.

Leila summarizes the U.S./Iran conflict in a breezy montage with the help of news footage and animation. Visiting her family back in Iran, Leila contributed to the smuggling of American music.

The tone of The Persian Version is so joyous that it makes learning about history and family conflict fun. For example, the cast does a Cyndi Lauper dance number when Leila brings them a cassette tape.


Still in the '80s, Leila's father, Ali Reza (Bijan Daneshmand) suffers heart problems requiring a transplant and ending his medical career. The first hospital stay puts the family $200,000 in debt, which leads into Leila's mother, Shirin's (Niousha Noor) story.

The American medical industry illustrates a culture shock. Americans just expect people in medical debt to declare bankruptcy and start over. This Iranian family can't reconcile that with their values.

But, it leads Shirin to take a real estate course, for which she also must get her GED. Shirin is able to support the family with her real estate career, as summarized by energetic montages of Shirin selling homes to different families.

There is a little bit of a sense of "and then this happened, and then this happened." But, it has good energy so it moves along briskly while bringing the audience up to speed and informs the present day conflicts.

Throughout her autobiography, Leila explains aspects of Persian culture like Saint Imam Zamam, who becomes a sort of action hero in her version. Not only does Leila address the camera, but sometimes photographs of her talk, or she'll pause and walk through a scene where actors have "frozen" but are clearly trying to hold still.


In the present, Shirin disapproves of Leila being gay. Leila is an aspiring filmmaker who just broke up with her girlfriend, Elena (Mia Foo).

Ali Reza is finally getting his new heart after decades on the transplant list, so Leila stays home with her grandmother, Mamanjoon (Bella Warda) while most of the family waits in the hospital.

Through Mamanjoon, Leila learns more about her mother's childhood experience. Shirin breaks the fourth wall to tell some of her own story in more fun, stylized flashbacks, which also go in a more emotional direction.

There are a lot more secrets revealed that help bridge generational and cultural gaps. There's no easy fix, but there's growth.

Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz makes her autobiographical story distinctly cinematic. The Persian Version is an emotional, feel-good film that will make audiences want to call their parents or children.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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