Circumstance focuses on a pair of 16-year-old Persian girls chafing under the cultural restrictions of more-or-less contemporary Iran, where improper dress, speech or behavior can attract the attention of the authoritarian Morality Police. That doesn’t stop the two from testing those boundaries by patronizing underground dance clubs, drinking, doing drugs and experimenting with sex. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the film is in Farsi with English subtitles.
Shot in an unobtrusive, almost documentary style, Circumstance is neither a Gossip Girl on the Gulf soap opera nor a hysterical Not Without My Daughter exploitation thriller. Although there are moments of genuine suspense, more than one erotic encounter and a villain who may be the year’s most despicable human being, the film’s central characters and their frustrations are sadly believable.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) comes from an upper middle-class family with a loving mother and father. Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) has been living with an uncle since her professor parents were branded political activists and apparently disposed of by the state. The initially timid and withdrawn Shireen is considered to be of questionable character for that reason at her all-girls school in Tehran, but it is Atafeh who convinces Shireen to take car rides from strangers and swim at a beach that’s supposed to be for men only. Atafeh also drags Shireen to a party where both girls change from their religiously traditional cover-up outfits to the sort of extremely un-conservative attire that literally could get them arrested.
As if those girls-just-want-to-have-fun urges aren’t dangerous enough, they also have feelings for each other that go beyond mere friendship. Shireen daydreams about leaving Iran for the relative freedom of Dubai, where Atafeh would be a singer, Shireen would be her manager, and the two of them could be lovers.
With that fantasy bedroom segment and other scenes in which Shireen and Atafeh engage in more chaste but equally forbidden expressions of affection, writer/director Maryam Keshavarz portrays the girls’ budding sexuality as part of their overall political awakening. On the cultural side, they join friends to make their own Farsi-dubbed version of the film Milk, after one of the group jokes that “Iranian censors would turn it into an anti-gay movie.” They also do a Farsi dub of Sex and the City, an act they regard as an equally valid human-rights statement. As Atafeh explains, “Anything illegal is politically subversive.”
The villain of the piece is Atafeh’s dope-smoking brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), who trades one addiction for another when he becomes a self-righteous religious fanatic. Mehran disapproves of Shireen and Atafeh’s liberal Western ways, a distaste that doesn’t stop him from lusting after Shireen. He’s also a big brother in both senses of the term, keeping secret surveillance on his family with hidden cameras in every room.
Circumstance‘s unhurried pace and air of quietly mounting dread are reminiscent of films by director/writer Atom Egoyan, whom Keshavarz says she considers one of her mentors. Its portrayal of hopeless romantic yearning, the adolescent rejection of authority and the soul-crushing horror of oppression are so vivid and moving you’ll wish you could spend more time with these beautiful but tragic characters after the movie cuts to black.