Danish director Berit Madsen’s first documentary feature spends a few years in the company of its titular figure, a provincial Iranian teenager whose dream of becoming an astronaut — or even “just” an astronomer — requires stubborn, single-minded focus, since almost no one around her thinks those are fit pursuits for a young woman in a conservative Muslim culture. “Sepideh” packages its somewhat predictable inspirational-uplift message in a leisurely, engaging form, even if there are moments that seem to be happening not just on camera, but because the camera is there. Broadcast sales prospects look bright.
Sixteen when we meet her, Sepideh Hooshyar lives with her mother and brother (her father died suddenly a few years ago) in Sa’adat Shahr, a town in the southwestern province of Fars. Though the family seems comfortably situated, their finances are turning precarious. The fields they own have gone dry and unplanted, and the late husband’s relatives have not been helpful about repairing a well. Mom also worries constantly that Sepideh, who invites gossip by going out stargazing at night and fixes on career goals that many consider unrealistic. (For one thing, they probably can’t afford to send her to university.)
When she’s turned down for a scholarship, one suspects it’s because she’s female. Her mentor, the local Astronomy Club leader who’s championed an observatory (still just half-built after 20 years), reacts with surprising negativity when it appears that fate will take her away from the area — even if closer to her dreams. On the soundtrack, Sepideh recites fanciful letters to “Mr. Einstein” (yes, that one), but gets further by writing her idol, Anousheh Ansari, who in 2006 became her country’s first person in space.
Though Madsen’s camera obviously stuck around a long time, it’s still hard not to feel that the participants aren’t sometimes performing for the camera, as so many conversations one might expect to be kept private are duly recorded here to clarify key developments or conflicts. Nonetheless, the general be-all-you-can-be thesis is likely to draw most viewers in. “I believe that if you want something bad enough, it will happen,” Ansari says to encourage Sepideh, though in her own case the dream of space travel was greatly enabled by personal wealth (something not mentioned here, though it was explored in 2009 docu “Space Tourists”).
Assembly is competent on the ground and frequently inspired when looking skyward, thanks to Babak Tefreshi’s special nighttime and time-lapse photography. The film, which also exists in a 52-minute edit, was billed in Sundance materials as “Sepideh: Reaching for the Stars,” but the official title is simply the protagonist’s name.