Probably henceforth known as The Iranian Lesbian Movie, Maryam Keshavarz's uneven but occasionally mesmerizing film Circumstance isn't really about sexuality. Rather, it's about something harder to express: the confusion and uncertainty of youth, and the tragedy of its stifling.
The film's primary focus is on two affectionate, rebellious teens, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), children of privilege living in Tehran. The latter's parents appear to have died as a result of their anti-regime ways, while the former lives at home with her worldly, wealthy parents. (Mom is a doctor, and Dad appears to be some kind of music professor, though it's also suggested at one point that he may have had a revolutionary past.)
Atafeh and Shireen gradually become attracted to each other and find themselves drawn increasingly into the wild, frenzied, hidden nightlife of Tehran's clandestine youth scene. One minute they're dancing to techno, and the next minute they're sneaking through a barbershop into an underground video shop. At one point, they get together with some friends and dub illegal copies of Milk and Sex and the City into Farsi.
If that doesn't seem very subtle, it's because subtlety appears to be the furthest thing from Keshavarz's mind. Those expecting the subdued, submerged cinema of Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Abbas Kiarostami should look elsewhere. Keshavarz, who is an Iranian-American, shot her film in Beirut, and there's no elegant dancing around subtext here. Circumstance is steeped in sensuous photography with forays into dreamlike, elliptical reveries and eroticism.
But then it all starts to go horribly wrong as the film gives way to cloying predictability. The repression of the world around the characters is compelling enough, but Keshavarz feels the need to bring in an unnecessary villain: Atafeh's brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a former drug addict and, apparently, a wayward musical genius. (The family actually calls him "the prodigal son," just to make sure we notice.) Now a holier-than-thou Islamic fundamentalist, Mehran has given up his libertine ways and become an informer for the notorious morality police, outfitting his family's home with secret cameras and microphones.
Mehran's ability to insinuate and survey every aspect of Atafeh and Shireen's lives is unreal, almost godlike — and one wonders if Keshavarz is reaching for metaphor here. But she confuses the issue. The film tries to suggest that Mehran's growing malevolence is rooted in his love for, and rejection by, Shireen. (Snidely Whiplash was a scorned lover, too.)
By the time Circumstance crawls to a conclusion, it feels hobbled and undone. An intriguing, otherworldly portrait of a youth culture living between the lines has been cheapened into the most familiar and clichéd of melodramas.