In this artful and intriguing, if also uneven, film, a strained rite-of-passage saga celebrates the would-be free-spirited, budding homosexual relationship of young women, strongly impacted by external forces. They are, after all, Iranians, caught in the crossfire of a desire to modernize and a will to constrain. If the underlying message is that traditions such as arranged marriage and conservative/religious mores win out, a scent of youthful liberation at least tickles the air, in ways we don’t expect from a film based in Iran.
Sarah Kazemy and Nikohl Boosheri are particularly fetching, and daring, as the young women — one from an affluent family, the other impoverished and ostracized for being the daughter of “disappeared” professors — trying to find their way through the repressive thicket of life in Iran. Not surprisingly, the film was actually shot in Lebanon and given support from such western sources as the Sundance Institute, beyond the clutches of Iranian censors.
Even so, Circumstance also manages to celebrate positive aspects of Iranian life, from familial bonds to the disciplined sanctity of Islamic religious practices and daily prayers. But Hollywood keeps calling. Echoes of American pop culture work around the story, from the goopy one-hit-wonder Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” oozing out of a television set in a key moment to a hilarious scene in which a group of friends gather to dub the classic gay-rights film Milk into Farsi.
Somehow, though, despite the artistic power in writer/director Maryam Keshavarz’s film, she falls prey to a bit of cultural vertigo herself. Circumstance swerves from the kind of indigenous poetic expression seen in the best of Iranian cinema to rather cheesy Hollywood moments. But the courage and rarity of the film’s coming-of-age story makes it worth a look.