Movie Review: Circumstance (R)


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Length: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Age Appropriate for: 17+. Cursing and sex, basically. The film gives us many suggested sexual situations, from lesbian ones to violent ones, and also discusses the subjugation of women in Iran. There is some female nudity, like suggested toplessness. In a more humorous move, teens dub over Western films like “Sex and the City,” so you can imagine the language involved; there’s also discussion of drug use and torture.

For months I’ve known ‘Circumstance’ would make me cry, and yup, I was right. The film about two teen girls falling in love in Iran is just as scandalous, and as distressing, as anyone could guess.

By Roxana Hadadi

If you’ve seen a movie at Landmark E Street or Bethesda Row in the past few months, let me take this opportunity to apologize. Maybe you saw a movie there, and maybe I was in that theater with you, and quite possibly I was the girl in sweatpants, eating candy, crying uncontrollably during the preview for “Circumstance.” Yes, that movie about the lesbians in Iran. I was sobbing. It was embarrassing. Sorry, guys.

If a short preview of “Circumstance” could so easily drive me to tears, how much did you think I cried during the actual film? So. Much. It’s easy to get emotionally distraught during director and writer Maryam Keshavarz’s first full-length feature, which tells the story of teen girls Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) struggling to both act on and hide their love in super-religious Iran. There’s eroticism here, of course, and tragedy too, of course. It’s provocative and sensual and suggestive and maddening and heart-breaking, a whole string of adjectives that can’t fully grasp the daring and boldness of Keshavarz’s film.

“If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you be?” Atafeh and Shireen ask each other, and it’s clear no matter where they could go, they would want to be together. Both high school students in Tehran, Atafeh is rich, from a well-off family who doesn’t agree with Iran’s religious government but warily understands its overwhelming reach, while Shireen is poor, living with her grandmother and uncle after her parents, revolutionary academics, were killed by the government. The two girls dream of running away together to Dubai, where Atafeh could be a singer and Shireen her manager, but it’s a cruel fantasy, one reinforced by their respective social pressures.

Their economic situations define their differences: One of the administrators at school tells Shireen her “character is questionable” since she’s late paying her tuition, and her uncle brings home suitors — strangers, older men she’s never met before — hoping that he can quickly marry her off. In her posh home, far more sophisticated than Shireen’s, Atafeh lives happily with her parents, who turn a blind eye to her partying and affection for Western things, like “American Idol” — until her older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) comes home from rehab. A recovering heroin addict (sadly, a distressingly large number of the youth of Iran actually are), Mehran’s arrival brings friction to the family — his father Firouz (Soheil Parsa) can’t trust him, his mother Azar (Nasin Pakkho) wants to believe he’s actually better and Atafeh just doesn’t know what to say. It’s only a matter of time before Mehran replaces heroin with religion, straying down an increasingly extremist path that eventually pits his newfound faith against Atafeh’s and Shireen’s affair.

It’s disaster, obviously; if you go into “Circumstance” expecting a happy ending, you’ve either never seen an Iranian movie (they’re all supremely depressing) or aren’t fully aware of all the oppression in Iran (also supremely depressing). If you don’t know, learn about both; as an Iranian-American, I’m clearly pleading for more cultural awareness. But Keshavarz effectively makes the film accessible for both Iranian and American viewers: The themes she presents about young love, the yearning for freedom and generational rifts between children and their parents are universal. It’s in the details, the little things that make Iranian society so rigid and uncompromising, that “Circumstance” takes the most risks. How these characters go from carefree to endangered is light-speed rapid, but that’s the hard truth of it all — the government and religious extremists treat everyone like they’re suspect in Iran. As Atafeh and Shireen so devastatingly learn, there’s no getting out.

Performance-wise, “Circumstance” is excellent. Boosheri and Kazemy are riveting as young lovers dancing a fine societal line, keeping their secret both at raucous illegal parties full of sex and booze and at quieter, more personal moments, such as when they go to the beach with Atafeh’s family. In Iran, public beaches are open to families, but women aren’t allowed to wear bathing suits or go into the water; when Atafah’s father quietly tells her he hopes that one day they can all swim together, the resentment and sadness in Boosheri’s face demonstrate leagues of depth. Similarly fantastic is Kazemy; she’s both knockout beautiful and able to capture a desperately yearning sadness. Together they’ll break your heart.

But some of Keshavarz’s story-telling missteps, mostly dealing with Mehran’s character development, keep the film’s narrative from true realism. Two of his most defining moments — when he secretly installs cameras in his house, and as he strays further down the path of religious fervor — aren’t given enough context to truly make sense. The story suggests that his need for his father’s approval turns into a rebellious rejection of his family and their ideals, but still, greater insight into his decisions would make his villainization more believable.

And yet Keshavarz makes it clear that it’s not only Mehran we should resent, but the entire Iranian political system and corrupt power structure that allows youth like him, Shireen and Atafeh to become so wholly ruined. With “Circumstance,” it’s easy to believe her argument.