“Circumstance” follows two schoolgirls who joyfully party and dare to love each other in today’s Iran, a treacherous place for the rebellious-teen psyche aching to thrive.
Focusing on the oppression of women by theocratic authorities, the film is too lacking in depth and boggy with melodrama to be able to explore its themes powerfully. But the scenarios it presents are interesting, its heroines are impressively sympathetic, and its surfaces are heated and enticing.
The movie is the fiction feature debut of Iranian-American writer-director Maryam Keshavarz, who shot the film, sometimes covertly, in Lebanon.
She combines a pop-pizzazzy coming-of-ager, a story of star-crossed love, and a domestic-crisis drama tinged with politics. The results might be described as a Hollywood Iranian adventure that is frustratingly choppy but often entertaining and rarely a waste of time.
The story centers on two best friends in love — with life and with each other. Sixteen-year-old Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) comes from a liberal and wealthy Tehran family. Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), is poor, orphaned, and maligned for being the child of anti-Revolution activists.
Together, the girls frequent forbidden nightspots where sex, drinking and boy-girl dancing occur and women wear slinky attire. In private, they sensually express their feelings and fantasize about living in more tolerant Dubai.
Their antagonist comes in the form of Atafeh’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), who, back from rehab, has become fervently religious.
Attracted to Shireen and disapproving of her relationship with his sister, Mehran begins spying on his family for the morality police and controlling the lives of the young women.
Featuring everything from flashy dancing and Persian hip-hop to PG-13-style lesbian love to a virginity exam, the movie doesn’t quite congeal.
Keshavarz’s steerage can be bumpy, and the story’s shift into heavy melodrama comes at the expense of a potentially compelling depiction of the characters’ deeper desires and intensifying desperation. The seeming use of Mehran to symbolize the oppression of women by fundamentalist mentalities has a heavy-handed feel.
Yet the film succeeds as often as it sinks and at its high points serves as an entrancing ride into Tehran youth culture — an Iran-specific but entirely accessible everyteen world where pop music, young love and dizzying optimism prevail.
Notably, the movie also looks at the dilemmas and contradictions of progressive Iranians who in private listen to Western music and encourage free expression but in public don’t dare buck convention.
The cast of Iranian-descent actors from around the world is solid throughout, with Boosheri, who has no prior film experience, delivering nicely in the emotionally demanding central role.
Starring Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai
Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes