‘Shayda’ Review: An Iranian-Australian Filmmaker’s Affecting Drama of Maternal Strength – Hollywood Reporter

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Cate Blanchett is one of the executive producers of a debut feature starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who toplined ‘Holy Spider.’
By Sheri Linden
Senior Copy Editor/Film Critic
Within the unassuming exterior of a suburban house, the central setting in Shayda, a handful of women are working to reclaim their lives. The title character is one of them, determined to leave an abusive marriage with her young daughter and not return to their native Iran. Unfolding in 1995 Australia, Noora Niasari’s debut feature is drawn from her experiences as a child in such a shelter and is at its core a tribute to the writer-director’s mother. Fueling the drama is the quiet ferocity of Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s performance and her tender chemistry with Selina Zahednia as 6-year-old Mona.

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Early scenes are thick with shadows, a sense of danger lurking. Four years earlier, Shayda moved to Australia with Hossein (Osamah Sami) and their toddler daughter so that he could attend medical school. A student too, she has stopped wearing the hijab and embraced the relative freedoms of a Western woman, enraging her husband with her newfound independence. Unwilling to understand the depth of the schism — or take responsibility for his brutality toward her — he expects them to return as a family to Iran after he graduates, even though she’s filed for divorce.

Shayda

The Bottom Line A fine balance of darkness and light.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Cast: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Osamah Sami, Selina Zahednia, Leah Purcell, Jillian Nguyen, Mojean Aria, Rina Mousavi
Director-screenwriter: Noora Niasari
1 hour 58 minutes

Nonsensically, as with many such legal proceedings, Hossein, who’s been restricted from contacting his daughter by phone, is suddenly granted weekly visitations in the lead-up to the custody hearing. For the first court-ordered visit, the three meet in a mall, an encounter tense with dread. When Hossein and Mona are late returning from their half-day together, Shayda’s deepest fears rise to the surface, a sharp shallowness in her breath. Mona takes a while to warm to the father she hasn’t seen in a while, but even then she’s holding back. When her parents exchange a few heated words, the girl’s stillness is striking, especially in comparison to her melodramatic sobs over purloined toys and other everyday slights at the shelter.
There, the even-keeled Joyce (Leah Purcell) oversees the small population with understated compassion. Residents include party-loving Vi (Jillian Nguyen), the peevish and troubled Cathy (Bev Killick), unsympathetic Renee (Lucinda Armstrong Hall), who has an infant and finds Shayda handy for babysitting, and Lara (Eve Morey), a Brit who hasn’t seen her son in more than two years. Whatever their differences and frictions, these women speak the same language as Shayda when it comes to the urgency of escape, the necessity of refuge. There’s no need for Shayda to explain her position to them, whereas her mother, ultra-mindful of tradition, gossip and the need to keep up appearances, urges her by phone to reconcile with Hossein — “He’ll be a doctor soon.”

Whether Shayda hasn’t entirely freed herself of such concerns with social propriety or merely isn’t one to wallow, she keeps things close to the vest when she gets together with Elly (Rina Mousavi), a sympathetic friend from Iran. When she does recount, to a lawyer, the extent of her ordeal — how Hossein abused her, how paternalistic police responded to her call her help — Niasari’s writing is all the more powerful for being straightforward, unadorned, and Amir Ebrahimi’s nuanced performance reveals how heartbreakingly alive Shayda’s trauma is. A new friendship with Elly’s cousin Farhad (Mojean Aria) offers a much-needed spark of hope. Her first encounter with the young man, in the pulsing light of a disco, is a capsule study in the contrast between gloom and illumination that shapes the movie.
Throughout the film, Niasari and cinematographer Sherwin Akbarzadeh move the action between a realm of the secretive and fraught and one of brightness and play. At the center of the latter are Shayda’s preparations for Nowruz, the Persian New Year celebration, each symbolic element of the ritual haft-sin table a gift she shares with Mona. In Zahednia’s portrayal, the filmmaker captures not just a watchful, worried daughter but an adept and delighted student.
Amir Ebrahimi, who received Cannes’ best actress award for her performance as a journalist in the crime thriller Holy Spider, is in very different mode here, but in both films she’s quietly riveting, embodying a refusal to retreat into prescribed roles. And Sami, in what might have been a merely thankless, one-note part, makes the sanctimonious Hossein both monstrous and pathetic, overwhelmed by the threat he perceives in Shayda’s strength. That’s especially true when one of his Saturdays with Mona turns into a suspenseful detour into foreboding, with Akbarzadeh’s swift camera and Elika Rezaee’s nimble editing pulling the viewer into the escalating trouble.

If it takes backbone to withstand such trouble, ignited as it is by ignorance and insecurity, Niasari and Amir Ebrahimi make clear that it also takes rejoicing. When Shayda dances, she implores Mona to join her, and to see the 6-year-old mirror her mother’s moves is to know that rebellion, love and resilience are in perfect harmony.
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