Even before Atafeh (Nikhol Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), the two teenage girls at the center of Circumstance, begin kissing and touching each other in naughty places, it’s obvious that this Iranian drama was not shot in Iran. (It was actually filmed in Beirut, itself only marginally more gay-friendly.) The cinema of Iraq’s next door neighbor, generally speaking, tends to be plain and direct. Director Maryam Keshavarz favors a dreamy, expressive vibe—handheld camera, deliberate underlighting—that feels positively Western. No shock she has divided her life between her homeland and America. The style fits, as its protagonists spend the film in a dream from which they are in constant threat of being awoken.
Atafeh and Shireen spend their days and nights in Tehran’s illicit clubs, smoking, drinking and listening to songs, one of which they describe, rebelliously, as “orgasmic.” They’re also in love, and fantasize about escaping to comparatively-lenient Dubai. Trouble arrives in the form of Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a recovering basehead whose addiction has turned him into a fundie prone to sexual nightmares. While slowly encroaching upon his family’s clandestine progressive lifestyle, he sets his sights on his sister’s girlfriend, waiting for the moment to blackmail them both into becoming another pair of statistics.
As a screed against the inhumanities of modern Iranian society, Circumstance is formulaic and too to-the-point, lacking the punch and personality of Persepolis. Keshavarz tries her best to inject life into her connect-the-dots script, and usually succeeds: The first half, especially, captures the freewheeling fun of living borderline-Western lives on the sly. There’s a contagious thrill to the scenes where our leads lead nightlives and later, having befriended an expat back from America, contribute to the local gay rights movement by recording a Farsi dub for a DVD of Milk.
This all leads to an all-too-common tragedy, and while a downer ending is clearly on the agenda, the characters are drawn vividly enough to operate as more than mere statistics. Kazemy’s Shireen is a woman doomed by her beauty while, as Atafeh, Boosheri is idiosyncratic and relaxed—a character who exists beyond the film’s frames. It’s one thing to care about their doomed relationship because you should, another because you, well, just do.