Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical feature The Persian Version is an energetic family comedy chronicling three generations of Iranian women in the US. An often hilarious and spirited film with a deceptively complicated plot structure, it unpacks family secrets that ultimately inform the present. The only sister in her large family of successful brothers, Leila (Layla Mohammadi) has never quite fit in, opting to take the creative route. Living in Brooklyn, she’s just broken up with her girlfriend and, at a costume party, randomly hooks up with Max (Tom Byrne), who is playing Hedwig on Broadway. The hook-up leads to motherhood, setting Leila down a path of discovery when a family secret is hinted at by her grandma Mamanjoon (Bella Warda).
Spending time in both New Jersey and Iran, Leila has never found a sense of identity, which naturally forces her to become a writer and filmmaker. She’s Western and independent, often the one that’s forced to smuggle liberating Western music through checkpoints. In addition to her pregnancy, the family faces a health crisis when matriarch Ali (Bijan Daneshmand) falls ill and Leila’s mother, successful relator Shirin (Niousha Noor), needs the assistance of her only daughter. As a young woman, Shirin found success in a series of tough breaks, simultaneously working her way through a GED and realtor-licensing program. She isn’t waiting around for her husband to provide her with what she wants in life.
In these passages, mother and daughter do come to find they have a rebellious side in common. Shirin practically builds New Jersey diasporas for immigrants looking for a home and community to call their own, supporting an Indian shop owner in Jersey City and also helping build communities throughout Northern and Central Jersey in the 1990s.
While the film’s later chapters become a bit convoluted–the film rewinds to Mamajoon’s experience in the 1960s with her philandering husband Babajoon (Ash Goldeh)–The Persian Version covers significantly more ground than it first suggests. As a rich, multi-generational story with several big laughs and surprises along the way, it perhaps packs a little too much into its third act: revelations on top of revelations before a happy ending. At first glance, it appears to cover ground similar to that of Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, but it becomes quite apparent this scope is larger.
While the script could have used a little refining and focus, The Persian Version remains a mostly winning crowd-pleaser to explore the personal histories of Iran before and after the cultural revolution while also telling a very regional story about New Jersey in the 1990s. With all that is going on, perhaps giving Leila a baby or dealing with a health scare on the eve of her brother’s wedding distracts from the central stories of our three leads. This is much more than an ethnic family drama that aspires to have “cross-over universal” appeal, even as it generates such by throwing too many elements together alongside three unique, compelling stories.
The Persian Version premiered at Sundance 2023 and has been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics.