Cousins can exert a strange fascination—a peer group more exotic than siblings, they’re a remote mirror for one’s own experience. Maryam is a story of cousinly love set against the backdrop of political insurgency. Ramin Serry’s sensitive and moving debut feature opens with archival footage of the shah of Iran, looking sleek and composed beside President Carter, and the revolutionary masses in Tehran, burning Uncle Sam in effigy.
“What did Iran have to do with me?” a girl named Maryam (Mariam Parris), asks in voice-over. She left the country as a baby with her parents, now comfortably assimilated immigrants living in safe, suburban New Jersey; her high school chums even call her “Mary.” But one day in 1979, her cousin, Ali (David Ackert), arrives from Tehran to stay with them while studying at the local university. As tensions between the U.S. and Iran mount, his fervent devotion to Islam and the Ayatollah Khomeini mix uneasily (and sometimes comically) with her own attempts to keep up a facade of carefree American teenagerdom.
Director Serry, an Iranian American who grew up in this country, said he made this intensely personal film in part to counter the general amnesia that has settled over the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, a key event in American political and social life. It was a time of yellow ribbons, flag waving, and racial epithets hurled at dark-skinned people, an incendiary tangle of patriotism and warmongering. Sound familiar? Serry perfectly captures the peculiar climate, creating uncanny echoes with today’s situation. Persian stars Shaun Toub and Shohreh Aghdashloo are extremely convincing as Maryam’s parents, a couple caught between old-world elegance and the bliss of suburban forgetfulness.
Maryam’s schoolmates are mostly blond-and-blue-eyed caricatures—glib, breezy, and nasty—and the film’s final plot twists strain credibility. Parris and Ackert strike its deepest notes in exploring Ali and Maryam’s growing relationship: Separated by vast distances of geography, language, and culture, they’re bound by the half-truths and permanent misunderstandings that lie at the heart of family.