Mohsem Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, released late last year, would have been a stirring and illuminating film had September 11 never happened. The events of that day, however, threw the part-documentarypart-fiction film into intense relief, imbuing its examination of the horrors of Taliban rule in Afghanistan with a pressing relevance to American life. Writer-director Ramin Serry‘s Maryam, a quietly moving look back at what it was to be Iranian-American in 1979, just before and after Americans were taken from the U.S. Embassy in Iran and held hostage, similarly benefits from arriving in the wake of ”the day America lost its [ever-regenerating] innocence.“ Retrieving the Iranian hostage crisis from history not only lets Serry (who based the film on his own childhood experiences) exorcise old demons, it provides pungent commentary on the current state of our union, eerily reflecting the present through the past.
Woven together with stock news footage — angry mobs of Americans demanding that Iranian students be deported, good old boys threatening to personally go over and kick some camel-jockey ass, ebullient crowds cheering the Ayatollah Khomeini in the streets of Iran — Serry’s film derives its real power not from its polemics but from being, at heart, a family drama. The Armin family emigrated to America when Maryam (Mariam Parris), now a teenager in high school, was a baby. She has no memory of Iran and is a typical adolescent — precocious, hormone-driven, a tad self-obsessed. Surrounded by a sea of catty, Clearasil-perfect blonds, she‘s shielded herself with an air of aloofness. Her overprotective parents (wonderfully acted by Shaun Toub and celebrated Persian stage actress Shohreh Aghdashloo) have settled into a life of suburban barbecues and Tupperware parties. Just before their groove of banal comfort is shattered by world events, the family receives news that Maryam’s college-bound cousin Ali (David Ackert) is coming from Tehran to live with them. He arrives with cheap clothes, a broken and furious heart, and the unyielding world-view of a newly minted Muslim fundamentalist. He also carries a devastating family secret.
Serry is a competent if unspec-tacular craftsman: Maryam is just above movie-of-the-week caliber in its look and construction, and the secondary characters (the cruel and oblivious white kids and the clueless college Marxists) are one-note, cartoonish. Where the young writer-director impresses is in the unforced sketching of era details (gas lines, the tacky energy of roller-skating rinks), in the sharp psychological insight into his lead characters, and in the performances he pulls from his actors. Parris expertly nails the coming-of-age turbulence of Maryam — who‘s shortened her name to a de-ethnicized Mary — with assured segues from petulance to coquettishness to emotional vulnerability. Likewise, Ackert conveys both grief and the rigid self-righteousness of the hardcore moralist, making it clear how the two feed one another. His Ali folds his arms tightly across his chest in a stern, schoolmarmish posture not only to keep himself apart from the vice and slackness he perceives around him, but to hold himself together in a world that assaults him from every angle.
The script, while clearly sympathetic to both the Armins and the America that they have come to love, essays their bafflement at Ali and his beliefs without ridiculing or dismissing him, or them — with, in fact, some degree of empathy. By channeling cultural tension through family dynamics and conflicts, Serry shades political arguments in such a way that even positions we might find abhorrent are never simplistically demonized. We’re forced to grapple with ambiguity. The social despair and spiritual emptiness that are manipulated to lead so many into the waiting arms of militant ideology is gingerly underscored throughout.
A shrewdly observed bit occurs when Ali, after trying to peacefully demonstrate against the Shah of Iran, who is being treated in a New York hospital, is unfairly arrested by the police and subsequently threatened by the INS. His already barely contained rage and alienation unleashed, he returns to his bedroom in the Armin home to rip down the family photos on the wall and replace them with a huge picture of the ayatollah. He‘s been betrayed; he fell for the lie of free speech, the American ideal of equality. When confronted with the harsh reality, he constructs a makeshift shrine to the man who’s declared war on the Great Satan. It‘s a fuck-you gesture that resonates across ethnic and cultural divides, that reaches across time into the present. And its implications and foreshadows, despite being so viscerally understandable, are no less horrifying.