Ramin Serrys beautiful and thought-provoking film, MARYAM, tells a very personal story about what its like to suddenly become a stranger in ones own land. Set in 1979 during and just after the Iranian revolutions, East meets West in this most timely of tales and neither gains by what happens next as the drama plays out with winning performances and a sensitive script.
Iranian-born Maryam arrived in New Jersey as a baby and at 16, has grown into an all-American teenager with all the usual problems growing up and forging her own identity, plus the straddling in-betweeness that comes of having immigrant parents who dont quite cotton to how American girls are allowed to behave. Though she considers herself strictly apple pie when it comes to national identity, her doctor father does not allow her to go to football games or to date. Her position becomes more difficult with the arrival of her cousin Ali from Iran after the death of his mother, throwing underlying tensions into the foreground and forcing her to face some hard facts and make some painful decisions.
Ali arrives and within hours of landing he experiences what life as an accepted outsider means. At the welcome party Maryams father throws for him, well-meaning but oblivious neighbors ask him if his name is Ali as in Ali Baba and then where his forty thieves are. Reza, an Iranian-American played with hipster coolness by stand-up comic Maziyar Jobrani, asks is he can call him Al in stead of Ali, the better to assimilate.
Ali, though, is not interested in assimilation. When the exiled Shah of Iran arrives in New York for cancer treatment, Ali becomes obsessed with first protesting his presence and then taking perhaps more drastic measures, actions that are not so much a safety valve for Alis anger as a spark to set off even more dangerous fireworks.
Meanwhile, with Alis arrival and the subsequent taking of the American hostages in Iran, Maryams status as an American, at least in the eyes of her peers changes dramatically, as does her attitude towards her Iranian heritage. Shes now considered Iranian, not American, and former friends ask her if shell take them hostage if she gets upset. Mariam Parris infuses her performance with a palpable anguish as her new position as neither American nor Iranian leaves her hurt, confused and angry with everyone.
With jaw muscles clenched, and arms wrapped in a self-embrace that removed and shields him from his surroundings, Ali is a tightly wound wounded soul, roiling inwardly with revolutionary fervor, religious fanaticism, and emotional family baggage. David Ackert plays him with an intense, bemused disapproval of life in the Great Satan, as the Ayatollah Khomeini calls the United States, a disapproval that simmers under the surface, bursting through with increasing violence. Yet Ackert also gives him a flicker of tenderness and vulnerability crying out beneath the angry façade.
As Maryams father, Shawn Toub is stern, loving, well-meaning and bewildered by the turmoil that events large and small have visited upon his family. When a shop owner claims that the NO IRANIANS sign in his window is a joke or a rock flies through his window, there is a dignity to his hurt that is regal. Its a quiet performance of enormous emotional impact.
Serry adds nice period touches, such as Maryam and her father arriving late to pick up Ali at the airport because of the lines as the gas station, as well as news clips of the revolution in Iran and the anti-Iranian protests here. But no touch is more compelling than the look he as an Iranian-American takes at how his homeland reacted to events so far away and, by extension, how it has reacted in the years since. If he has Ali take steps that may strain credulity, he also never stoops to being didactic and is certainly never willing to paint anyone as all bad or all good. By doing so he creates a moving story that invites discussion and reflection with the type of situation that could apply to almost anyone, no matter what their national origin, gender, religion or sexual orientation.