An ethical tale for a new era, the youth drama “Dressage” powerfully illustrates the consequences of growing social divisions within contemporary Iranian society and indicts a middle and upper class that have lost their moral center. Helmer Pooya Badkoobeh’s debut feature centers on an alienated teen, from a family of modest means, who breaks with her group of wealthier, amoral peers after they all commit a thrill-seeking crime. Bolstered by a special mention in the Generations 14plus section of the 2018 Berlinale, further fest play is a given for this provocative look at power, money, hypocrisy, and the gap between generations that feels inspired by the work of director Mohammad Rasoulof.
The action takes place in Mehr Shahr, a green suburb of Karaj. In this place, some 25 miles from Tehran, fancy private villas mingle with the apartment blocks of the less well-off. Pretty, stubborn, and not especially likeable Golsa (Negar Moghaddam, who resembles a young Golshifteh Farhani) is the only child of driven, middle-class professionals (Ali Mosaffa, Shabnam Moghaddami) who want to give her more opportunities than they ever had, including the chance to ride at a local stable.
Although Golsa’s parents maintain that they want the best for her, the nuclear family barely interacts. Dinners are silent affairs, followed by time in front of the television. Golsa is so tuned out of her sterile home life that she’s constantly depicted wearing earphones, through which she listens to music, and with that teen essential, the cellphone. She comes and goes without her parents knowing her friends or where she is headed.
Leaving the house whenever possible, Golsa hangs out with a group of spoiled, privileged classmates, who look down on her family background. One night, out of boredom, they all rob a small grocery store. After injuring the Afghani clerk (Lotfollah Seifi), they forget to remove the security camera footage that could incriminate them. The gang — in particular, spineless bully Amir (Yasna Mirtahmasb), son of the richest man in town — force Golsa to go retrieve it.
Smarting from hurt pride at the way her so-called friends turned on her, but also, slowly, feeling some pricks of conscience, Golsa hides the camera footage at the dressage stables. Her refusal to destroy it or hand it over to the gang escalates the tensions between them — and between her and her family.
The screenplay by Hamed Rajabi (whose own directing debut “A Minor Leap Down” screened at the Berlinale in 2015) comes out of, but also contrasts with, the tradition of cinematic moral tales that launched after the Islamic Revolution. Golsa is far more antihero than sympathetic. Like Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, she functions as the outsider who exposes the shallow, materialistic values of her friends, their parents, and even her own mother and father. But without a friend or family member with whom she is willing to discuss her moral quandary, this headstrong character winds up making many mistakes that damage the lives of those less well off than her.
Unafraid to feature unlikable characters, director Badkoobeh harnesses Golsa’s sullen, restless energy to keep the film compelling. She’s almost always on the move, not least because she has no money for taxis, and without Amir, no rides to the stable, the one place where she feels happy and at ease. Working with ace DP Ashkan Ashkani (“A Man of Integrity”), the helmer takes advantage of numerous night scenes to underscore the oppressive atmosphere in which his characters exist.