Suggesting an Iranian spin on “Romeo and Juliet,” but with the notion of tragic, unconditional love replaced by world-weariness and cynicism, director Rassul Sadr Ameli’s “The Girl in the Sneakers” makes for a highly enjoyable addition to the burgeoning canon of exciting new films from the Middle East. Neither as contemplatively naturalistic as Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy nor as impressionistic as Majid Majidi’s series of children’s adventures, pic has a directness that well suits both its outspoken title character and its setting amid the hustle-bustle of contemporary Tehran. With proper niche handling targeted at Persian filmgoers, pic, which opens July 14 on one screen in Santa Monica, could become a word-of-mouth success in specialized venues.
Pic opens on a teenage couple — Aideen (Majid Hajizadeh) and Tadai (Pegah Ahangarani) — strolling through a Tehran park. Though they have met only recently, they are of a piece in their wistful daydreaming. He admits to having his life changed by reading the literary adventures of Don Juan; she, at only 15, fancifully yearns for an adult world she imagines herself to be more than ready for. Together, they seek a way of literalizing their reveries, until reality catches up with them in the form of a police officer who arrests Aideen on suspicion that he has deflowered Tadai.
It’s a false alarm, of course, but one that serves as a subtly potent reminder of the conservative modes of social discourse that make Middle Eastern cultures enigmatic to most Americans. That Tadai should even be seen in a public place, with a young man her own age to whom she is not related, outrages her parents. They demand disciplinary action be taken against Aideen and forbid Tadai from seeing him again.
Distraught and dejected in the best spirit of rebellious adolescent movie protagonists, Tadai quickly decides that she cannot live without seeing Aideen once more. She runs away from home, setting off on a 24-hour journey through Tehran while she waits to be reunited with her love. Hers is an odyssey through the lives of merchants and servants, passers-by and full-time street dwellers, like the put-upon gypsy woman (Akram Mohammadi) to whose aid Tadai comes, and who later returns the favor.
Tadai’s adventures are constructed as an intricate series of reversals of fortunes. Ameli relates the pic’s action in a series of long, entrancing takes, and co-writers Peyman Qasemkhani and Fereydoun Farhudi’s dialogue is exceptionally sly and perceptive on matters of pubescent arrogance and discontent. But the film’s real strength is that, underneath its familiar rebellious-youth-picture veneer, the filmmakers have crafted a pungent satire on the foolhardiness of youth and the cruelty of a dog-eat-dog world in which no one, not even a kindly gypsy beggar, is to be taken at face value.
Pic’s true setting is that tentative space between carefree adolescence and responsible adulthood, and its poetic quality largely derives from the way Ameli neither condemns teenage idealism nor embraces the ordinariness of the grownup world. Tadai’s journey ultimately amounts to her trying adulthood on for size, finding it an ill fit and, for the time being, throwing it back on the rack. And in that way, Ameli’s film adopts the fable-like quality of the best-known recent Iranian movies.
Tadai’s impetus for running away in the first place and subjecting herself to harsh street conditions never feels fully formed here, and it would be easy to fault “The Girl in the Sneakers” for that. But as Ameli makes clear, the film is meant to suggest that the idleness of youth frequently leads to high drama and a skewed view of reality. Pic also makes a couple of misguided forays into a less organic, more broadly slapstick style of comedy.
There’s impressive depth of feeling in Ahangarani’s extraordinary lead performance. Her wide-eyed, quick-tongued precociousness is irresistible, and her presence easily carries the film over its rougher spots.