Persian-American Maryam Keshavarz makes her feature debut with Circumstance, the story of two young Tehranian women struggling against social norms. As it often does, teenage rebellion bleeds into revolution (or counter-revolution here): Sarah Kazemy, the daughter of disappeared intellectuals, and Nikohl Boosheri, whose parents are wealthy and connected, go from hanging out at illegal parties to helping a friend dub Milk into Farsi. The parallels between Milk’s cultural rebellion and their own are hotly debated, but the movie has covert resonance for the two women, whose lifelong friendship has begun to turn sexual.
Kazemy and Boosheri dream of escape to the relative freedom of Dubai, but when Boosheri’s drug-addict brother (Reza Sixo Safai) returns from prison, their options start to dry up. Safai comes home humbled, but his parents’ distrust drives him toward Islamic fundamentalism and a position with the country’s Morality Police, allowing him to look down at his family rather than the other way around.
With little to do but seek out potential immorality, Safai develops an obsession with his sister’s relationship with her best friend, eventually using security cameras to track them through the apartment. Keshavarz’s use of multiple screens to convey the increasing intensity of his surveillance serves as an apt but clumsily executed metaphor for the country’s invasion of the private sphere. A scene where women in black veils bake in the seaside sun while men in bathing suits play on the beach before them more deftly makes the point that women in particular are not allowed to determine when they will or won’t be seen. They’re invisible sometimes, all-too-visible at others.
Keshavarz’s staging of period Tehran (shot in Beirut) is compelling, but her story plays like Sundance Mad Libs, a disappointment given the setting’s potential. Circumstance is solidly constructed, but without much in the way of inspiration. Its conclusion feels rushed and contrived, particularly where Safai’s transformation into a vindictive zealot is concerned. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare Circumstance to the very different Persepolis, but it’s hard not to drift off to Marjane Satrapi’s more pungent and personally inflected evocation of the same terrain, in which the characters are as vivid as their surroundings.