Review of “Circumstance”

After wowing audiences and picking up several awards at film festivals all over the world, including the prestigious Audience Award at Sundance, Circumstance will be released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles today with a wider release in select theaters nationwide on September 9.

Spoilers ahead.

Featuring a lesbian love story between two teenagers in contemporary Iran, Circumstance is a family drama that examines the conflict between Iranian youths who yearn to express themselves — and who will go to great lengths to do so — against a repressive establishment that seeks to stamp out anything it perceives to be evil.

The story centers around the relationship between schoolgirls Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), both of whom were raised by well-to-do intellectuals. Their environments have somewhat sheltered them from the fundamentalist element the country, though it is evident that women are second class citizens and their upper class status doesn’t make them immune from the Big Brother element in modern day Iran.

Shireen lives with her uncle — it is implied that her parents died as a result of their activities as political dissidents — and she gravitates towards Atafeh and her family to regain the closeness of the nuclear family dynamic that she lost. Shireen and Atafeh form a close friendship, and on the weekends they escape to underground parties in Tehran, held in abandoned warehouses and private apartments, where they can throw off their headscarves, drink cocktails and dance. Perusing a hidden DVD store with friends, they pick up a contraband copy of Milk and decide to dub the film into Farsi, an illegal activity that they take on with youthful exuberance.

Eventually the friendship turns romantic and, knowing that their relationship will never be accepted, the girls fantasize about escaping to Abu Dhabi, where they can dress in Western attire and go to clubs that do not need to be hidden from the prying eyes of the morality police.

Atafeh and Shireen’s relationship and Atafeh’s family dynamic are shaken when Atefeh’s wayward brother, recovering junkie Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), is released from prison and returns home. As with many lost souls, Mehran turns to religion for structure and guidance. His addiction to drugs is transferred to his newly found religion, and his zeal increases with time and he begins to impose his values on his family, including installing a surveillance system to spy on the activities of his family and Shireen, with whom he begins to fall in love.

One night, Atafeh and Shireen are arrested for the crime of driving and smoking cigarettes while having ovaries. Atafeh’s father Firouz (Soheil Parsa) bails her out of prison, and he is warned by the fundamentalist warden that money is not enough to shield his daughter from the law and established social customs. Mehran bails Shireen out of jail, and soon afterwards, Shireen’s uncle decides that Shireen needs to be married off — with a quickness. The designated bachelor is Mehran, much to Atafeh’s dismay. Meanwhile, the authorities have become increasingly interested in Firouz’s family life, as they have befriended Mehran. As the walls close in on her, Firouz is left with fewer and fewer outlets to express her identity and Atefeh makes a drastic, life changing decision.

While Mehran’s transformation from washed out junkie to zealot feels more like a plot device, the love affair between Atafeh and Shireen is expertly written, and the chemistry between them feels authentic. The film is buoyed by a soundtrack that reflects the urgency of youth, and the club scenes are shot with dazzling color, an escape from the dreariness of everyday life. Writer and director Miriam Keshavarz has provided a complex, rare and intimate glimpse into a culture wrestling between rigid traditional values and the human desire to be free.

Here’s the trailer.


Circumstance opens nationwide Sept. 9.