Odd woman out - "Maryam" Review

By David Lipfert Offoffoff.com

Despite a few uneven performances, "Maryam" memorably tells the story of a woman growing up Iranian-American as the 1979 revolution hits and politics invades her ordinary American life.

Although "Maryam" has been on the festival circuit since its completion in 2000, the theme is suddenly relevant. Ramin Serry's absorbing film takes place in 1979 New Jersey and tracks an Iranian-American family before and after the American Embassy takeover. It's deja vu, because the understandable but senseless wave of rage meted out to Muslims and Arabs in post-9/11 America merely repeats anti-Iranian groupthink from two decades earlier.

Maryam (Mariam Parris) - Mary to her friends - is your typical white suburban high-achiever with a coveted spot as news anchor for her high school journalism club's features broadcast. Along comes the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and she finds herself unsubtly edged out by her sniping blonde competitors. This is the first time that Maryam realizes her ethnic roots. Although she was born in Iran, America is the only country she has known. Suddenly the sole refuge is her family, headed by a strict doctor father (Shaun Toub) and sympathetic mother (Shoreh Aghdashloo). Not that her parents aren't on the receiving end of frosty snubs by embarrassed friends and neighbors, galvanized by nightly news clips of mass marches back in Iran.

Had they been able to sit tight until the Reagan inauguration and simultaneous (but of course most assuredly not coincidental) freeing of the Embassy personnel, the Armin family's predicament might have been manageable. Life (and cinema) is never that simple. With perfect bad timing, cousin Ali has arrived from Tehran to get his master's in engineering. Maryam's father gave advance warning that Ali was arriving with a different behavior code, but Maryam could not realize just how incompatible Ali would become with her social life. Dr. Armin's iron hand now has an aide, and Ali chaperones Maryam at a roller-rink dance. The alcohol, drugs and heavy petting throw strict teetotaler Ali into fits of fury, and he soon returns home with his rebellious ward. By now Ali has accumulated a foil in Reza (Maziyar Jobrani). Thoroughly assimilated into American mores, Reza tries to expand Ali's circle of friends with a stop at the college's Marxist club. Ali's virulent anti-Communism ensures fireworks.

Ali has brought something else with him - a dark family secret. Dr. Armin emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1960s right after his activist brother died in connection with a raid on their home in Iran by the shah's secret police Savak. Maryam, who was a baby then, knows nothing of the time Ali's father fell and cracked open his head after being rousted from hiding in their attic. Ali was old enough at the time to remember, and his presence rekindles the Armins' guilt. Meanwhile Maryam has to digest two versions of the incident, "I saved our family" or "You killed my father."

Now an external event, the arrival of the shah in New York for cancer treatment, brings things to a head. Ali picks up a gun through Reza's connections and coerces Maryam to drive him into the city. Armin's medical ID and a white jacket get Ali as far as the security contingent guarding the shah, but then logic and cowardice force a retreat. Back in New Jersey, Ali flashes the revolver to break up a political row on campus and now has the N.J. police on his trail. The Armins send him packing, and it's goodbye USA just in time for the Iran-Iraq War.

Dramatically well crafted, Maryam has brevity and fast pace going for it. Ramin Serry's script offers clear characterizations, surely the result of having lived through the same discrimination he portrays so well in his debut feature-length film. The ironic conclusion with Ali topping his father's daring with his uncle's weakness makes his expulsion from the family a natural outcome. Although Maryam has been dealt out of key high school happenings, Serry leaves the door open for reconciliation with her blond, airhead boyfriend Jamie (Victor Jory).

Unfortunately not all the actors are up to the script's challenge. Visually well cast, the younger players are often jerky. Mariam Parris has a voice that can charitably be called grating, but Shoreh Aghdashloo's professionalism saves the day. The Armin home decor is rather far from how a first-generation Iranian-American house might look, but the late-'70s ambience is palpable. Serry nicely weaves in footage of the Ayatollah Khomeini's return to Iran and President Carter's speeches. With good dramatic sense, he imbues Ali with arch-religious conservatism that belies his age, but we should remember that his was merely one current in the anti-shah revolt. At its heart, the Iranian Islamic Revolution was essentially nationalistic, with religion and opposition to repressive policing the vehicles to achieve success. When the music stopped, we know that Ali's faction grabbed all the chairs, and the rest is current history. In spite of adhering too closely to subsequent interpretations of these events, Maryam should be valuable as a realistic portrait of the personal side of reckless discrimination.

Originally Published March 4, 2002



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