In Tehran's underground art scene, two teenagers, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), experiment with their sexuality. Meanwhile, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh's prodigal son brother, leaves behind his life as a classical musician when he returns home from drug rehab.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: One memorable moment of many in Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz’s assured, affecting feature debut, depicts a quartet of teenagers discussing whether they should dub Gus Van Sant’s Milk into Arabic and sell it on the sly. Most of what these kids do is on the sly: They live in Tehran, under one of the world’s most repressive regimes, and the two girls in this quartet, Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), are dreaming of a way out.
At an underground DVD shop they chide their friend, an American visitor, when he draws a parallel between the legacy of Harvey Milk and the need for a similar human rights revolution in Iran. That scene and the two that follow—involving a grim check of Shireen’s independence and the predatory, sexualised vibe of an underground night club—are exemplary of the subtle but startling tension Keshavarz sets up between what threatens a 16-year-old girl within an Islamic Republic, and the different set of challenges that face a young woman coming of age and reckoning with the subjugations women face even in the free world. Shireen and Atafeh come from privileged, progressive families, and as such their home lives provide a measure of sanctuary from the restrictive culture at large. As teenagers they have cultivated a healthy but not dominant interest in American pop—Shireen dreams of running away to Dubai with Atafeh and managing her friend’s career as a performer.
When Atafeh’s older brother returns home from a stint in drug rehab the balance in her family shifts: Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) has turned to religion, as many recovering addicts do, to reorder his life. Slowly, however, Mehran’s devotion to Islam, a source of chagrin and then deep dismay to his family—including Soheil Parsa and Nasrin Pakkho as the siblings’ father and mother—grows extreme. Shireen and Atafeh, meanwhile, test the attraction bound up in their love and profound inter-dependence. In one scene Keshavarz seems to indulge their dreamy, giggly conception of a future together with a fantasy sequence of sublime, high fashion, lesbian kink. Everyone senses that Shireen and Atafeh seem awfully close, but only the increasingly rigid Mehran, who eyes Shireen with pure longing whenever she’s in sight, is motivated to exploit the situation to his advantage.
Perhaps Keshavarz’s greatest technical feat in this exceedingly well-crafted film (the editing in particular is finely intuitive; an attention to both aesthetic and thematic nuance ensures each scene resonates into the next) concerns Mehran’s radicalisation. Keshavarz has him join Tehran’s much-feared 'Morality Police' without positioning the film on the opposing task squad, counter-enforcing as she goes. There is certainly no mistaking the American-born writer/director’s sympathies, but they are seeded strongly in character—and in circumstance—rather than ideological debate.
Keshavarz is one of the hand-full of this year’s Sundance directors who developed her film through the Sundance lab, and the result should put any cries of institutional nepotism straight to bed. Clearly a young director of strong and distinctive vision, she captures what feels like a convincing version of modern Tehran (the film was shot in Lebanon) not by cleaving to gritty realism or fussing over referential details but by delving deeply into character, moments, and mood. The one misstep for me was the resolution she chose for a motif threaded throughout the film: Inserted shots of the girls from what appear to be surveillance cameras around the city add to the feeling of inescapable dread. Its culmination feels like a stray conceit adrift in the more lyrical, organic flow of Keshavarz’s story of a family—and a bond that perhaps outpaces family—compromised by extremity and intolerance.