Circumstance, the story of the budding romance between two high school girls, is unlike any adolescent love story you’ve ever seen: This one takes place in Tehran. The debut of writer-director Maryan Keshavarz, who lives outside of Iran like much of her cast and crew (the film was shot in Beirut), would have been impossible to make in her mother country — not to mention highly illegal.
The cultural oppression of women is what makes the teenagers Atefah (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) dream about moving to Dubai or somewhere abroad — “where we can be free,” one of the girls declares. Although they haven’t yet realized they’re in love with each other, the inseparable friends have a connection that goes beyond a sisterly bond. When they watch American Idol and sing along to a contestant’s rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, they dance around the room while staring into each other’s eyes. To an outside observer, they may seem like two girls who are just having fun. But to someone like Atefah’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a recovering drug addict who has just returned home and harbors feelings for Shireen, the teens’ attraction toward each other is obvious.
Keshavarz, who was born in New York City and grew up in the U.S. and Iran, shows us how young people in Tehran get around the constrictive system, pretending to attend sewing classes that are really raucous house parties and dancing at secret nightclubs subject to raids by the Morality Police (the literal name of the authorities who hound teenagers). When the two girls and their friends scan the shelves of a store of bootlegged American movies, one of their pals suggests they dub Gus Van Sant’s Milk into Persian, so as to start a revolution in Iran that would mirror the gay rights movement of the 1970s.
Circumstance also often shows us the characters via security cameras mounted in the schoolyard, on the street, even inside Atefah’s home. They are being watched everywhere they go: There is no escape. There are times when the movie becomes too literal, like a scene in which Atefah lashes out at her father — a wealthy and powerful man — for having to live in a culture he helped to create. The scene is unnecessary, but Circumstance, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, wants to give a voice to people — especially women — who are rarely heard in Iran. The fact that Atefah and Shireen come from radically different economic backgrounds is never a barrier between the two girls. They are open to anything, their hearts still pure: The world around them conspires to keep them apart and ensure their mouths stay shut and their dreams remain just that.
Cast: Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai, Soheil Parsa.
Writer-director: Maryam Keshavarz.
Producers: Maryam Keshavarz, Karin Chien, Melissa Lee.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 109 minutes. In Persian with English subtitles. Vulgar language, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday Oct. 14 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.