A lovely, intricate coming-of-age portrait set in a cross-cultural context, “Maryam” reps a promising debut from Ramin Serry. The 1979-set story of an Iranian-American teenager struggling to forge an identity during the onset of the hostage crisis is impressively ambitious in scope, which is at times a liability, for Serry’s canvas is at its richest when his brush strokes are small and delicate. Continued fest dates and possible niche engagements loom.
Most coming-of-age films possess a couple of key story points; this one offers a half-dozen, exploring issues of global politics, family conflict, Old World vs. New World values, gender difference and xenophobia. Sixteen-year-old Maryam (Mariam Parris) just wants to be a typical New Jersey teen, but her father, Darius (Shaun Toub), keeps her on a tight leash. So she is less than thrilled when her Iranian cousin Ali (David Ackert) comes to live with her family and attend American grad school; the resolutely anti-Shah Ali stands for exactly the kind of Old World values that Maryam has come to resent.
Initially uncomfortable with American displays of affection and candor, Ali gradually bonds with Maryam but nearly provokes a family crisis when he hints that vital secrets about her father’s background have been withheld. As family tension grows, so does the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, effectively symbolized in the xenophobic glances of the Armins’ once-friendly neighbors and acquaintances. Finally, with the Shah in nearby Manhattan for medical treatment, Ali concocts a half-baked plan to assassinate him.
With too much going on, the third act gets unwieldy. The unspoken family secret — a political conflict between Darius and Ali’s father that turned violent — feels like a plot contrivance that does little to elucidate character or advance the story. And Ackert, despite a generally sensitive performance, does his character a disservice by coming off as a bit of a fanatic.
But Parris, as the titular protagonist, brings great maturity to her part, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, as the mother who is wiser than she lets on, gives a thoughtfully nuanced performance; their intimate mother-daughter scenes are handled beautifully. Helmer Serry, an Iranian-American who mined his past to write about this period, gives the proceedings a deeply authentic feel. He’s abetted by costumer Nancy Brous, whose outfits unerringly evoke the late ’70s — be it through thigh-hugging running shorts or lime-hued Adidas T-shirts.