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‘Summer With Hope’ Review: Lyrical Iranian Tragedy is Initially Cryptic, Slowly Revealing and Finally Wrenching

Sadaf Foroughi's sophomore feature demands viewers' patience as it probes strange hostilities around a swimming competition, but rewards it with walloping emotion and startling visuals.

Summer With Hope
Courtesy of First Generation Films

At a late point in “Summer With Hope,” as the film’s various walls of conflict are closing menacingly in on each other, and the camera has seemingly surrendered to a state of permanent penumbra, our protagonist’s agonized mother utters a line that could be the synopsis for a million thrillers and melodramas that have gone before. “We came here for a simple reason,” she sighs, “and it got complicated.” From the audience’s point of view, however, nothing in Sadaf Foroughi’s elegant, escalatingly tragic second feature is as simple as it seems to the characters. The film often leaves us literally in the dark, piecing together key events and circumstances in an ostensibly straightforward story — about a teenage swimmer and his elders, invested in the outcome of crucial national qualifiers — that is folded and fractured by the politics and tacit social codes of modern Iran.

As such, “Summer With Hope” makes the viewer work hard for its eventual revelations and uncushioned emotional payoff: The film does more showing than telling, still more hinting than showing, and sometimes counts on us simply to trust our wariest human instincts. Rather like Foroughi’s joltingly impressive 2017 debut “Ava” — a festival breakout that scored awards at Toronto and Stateside distribution with Grasshopper Film — this is a slow-burning stick of dynamite, driven by steaming youthful rage against a broken patriarchal system, and sufficiently confident in its ultimate impact as a domestic thriller of sorts to divert us with stylish slatherings of mood. Following a premiere in Karlovy Vary’s main competition, this Canadian-Iranian co-production should match “Ava’s” profile and performance, cementing the Montreal-based Foroughi as one of the most distinctive voices in new Iranian cinema.

As in her debut, Foroughi centers her story on a restless teenager resisting the control of adult guardians, and of a society that cramps their freedoms with less benevolent intent. At the very beginning, an aggressively contrasting sequence of soundtrack cues establishes the separate worlds of 17-year-old Omid (Mehdi Ghorbani), dancing in an orange-lit club to Duke Dumont’s electronic banger “Ocean Drive,” and his mother Leili (Leili Rashidi, returning from “Ava”), driving to the full-volume surge of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor — shown to be diegetic only when her son, slouching into the car beside her, promptly switches it off. A sort of mutual sullenness bristles between them as they hit the road, driving from their home in Tehran to an elite residential estate on the Caspian Sea, where talented swimmer Omid is set to take part in a critical swim meet, with a place in the national championships at stake.

Despite having been invited to participate, however, Omid is barred from competing by stringently by-the-book coach Kamran (Milad Mirzaee) over an error in the application process — an unremarkable obstacle, cuing what seems a disproportionate degree of anguished confrontation and blame-swapping between Omid, the ever-fretful Leili and her protective brother Saadi (Alireza Kamali). As this blunder is discussed and disputed with rising hostility, viewers may sense this is about more than just a swimming trophy: Sure enough, Foroughi’s reticent, tensely structured script gradually suggests the extent to which the adults’ futures are tied up in the boy’s sporting success, with even Leili’s long-desired divorce from Omid’s estranged father hanging in the balance. That Omid’s name translates as “Hope” is a rare instance of overstatement in otherwise elusive proceedings.

These barbed complexities slowly announce themselves like stray specks of grit and flint in a shoe, chafing until they eventually impede progress entirely — and that’s before a surfeit of suspicions and hostilities emerge surrounding Omid’s friendship with junior coach Mani (Benyamin Peyrovani), who agrees to train him on the sly for a separate open-water swim race. In a disorienting feat of reverse-gear storytelling, the taboo queer undertones of the young men’s easy rapport are principally implied through others’ hysterical reactions: Foroughi grants us selective access to their relationship, maintaining an ambiguity that ultimately proves the truth, at least in legal terms, immaterial in the face of ugly societal prejudice. Omid’s athletic prowess and untamed spirit are mostly demonstrated in adrenalin-pumping scenes of him running away — whether from violent pursuers in an illicit gym break-in, or from his responsibilities in a witching-hour joyride on the beach, glitteringly lit by distant, threatening city lights.

The striking visual mannerisms and compositional extremities of Foroughi and DP Amin Jafari’s images support the film’s anxious cultivation of mystery. In one exactingly shot frame after another, characters’ actions and expressions are partially concealed by gauzy evening shadow, strategically foregrounded objects, or even bluntly cropped framing. (As in “Ava,” the director isn’t shy to cut a speaking character off at the neck when it suits her guarded perspective.) But this isn’t just cinema of tics and teases: When “Summer With Hope” eventually sheds its blind spots to reveal a full picture of familial desperation and communal cruelty, the severity of it all stuns like a flashlight in the eyes.

‘Summer With Hope’ Review: Lyrical Iranian Tragedy is Initially Cryptic, Slowly Revealing and Finally Wrenching

Reviewed at Karlovy Vary Film Festival (Competition), July 7, 2022. Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: "Tabestan Ba Omid")

  • Production: (Canada-Iran) A First Generation Films, Sweet Delight Pictures production. (World sales: First Generation Films, Toronto.) Producers: Sadaf Foroughi, Kiarash Anvari, Christina Piovesan. Executive producer: Justine Whyte.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Sadaf Foroughi. Camera: Amin Jafari. Editor: Kiarash Anvari. Music: Soheil Peyghambari
  • With: Leili Rashidi, Mehdi Ghorbani, Alireza Kamali, Benyamin Peyrovani, Kiarash Anvari, Milad Mirzaee, Sanaz Najafi. (Persian dialogue)