Let nobody say writer-director Maryam Keshavarz doesn’t know how to start a movie.
The first time we see Leila, her alter ego in the autobiographical, warm-hearted, personal, funny but also somewhat chaotic “The Persian Version,” she's walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Headed to a Halloween party, she’s carrying a surfboard and wearing what she calls a “burkini” — a sexy bikini, but paired with a niqab, the face-covering garment worn by some Muslim women.
It’s surely not an accident that Leila is crossing a bridge, because her film (and Halloween costume) is about bridging two identities — her Iranian heritage, and her American life. Leila (an engaging Layla Mohammadi) is a New York born-and-raised aspiring screenwriter (she wants to be an Iranian Martin Scorsese) who, we learn, has never been fully comfortable in either world. American kids would call her names at school; Iranians saw her as too Americanized.
There are other bridges to be crossed here, too. The most important is that between Leila and her formidable immigrant mother, Shireen (the wonderful Niousha Noor), who created a successful life in America out of sheer grit, educating herself and becoming an adept businesswoman while running a household full of boys and one girl. It’s the girl, Leila, with whom Shireen has the fraught relationship, because — well, if you’re a mother or a daughter you probably get it.
But there’s a deeper backstory behind this troubled dynamic, and to learn all that, we must take a journey — a long journey, in terms of the film’s run time — back to a remote village in 1960s rural Iran. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because first adult Leila, gay and newly divorced from her wife, gets pregnant with the guy in drag who plays Hedwig on Broadway.
We told you this was chaotic.
About that Halloween party: Leila wins the costume prize — justifiably! — and also hooks up in a back room with Maximillian (Tom Byrne, charming in a less roguish Hugh Grant way), who's starring in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the Belasco Theatre (where the show did actually run). And when she gets pregnant — professing she didn't know you could get pregnant from a one-night stand — Max says he’s all in.
Keshavarz, whose film won the audience prize at Sundance, likes a flashback, and one of them takes us back to Leila's childhood summer trips to Iran, fooling guards at the airport looking for banned American music and videos, and bringing Cyndi Lauper to her Iranian relatives. Who, in turn, dance with abandon to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” — a joyous scene.
Back in the States (the film toggles perhaps too frequently between eras, mostly 2000s New Jersey, 1980s Brooklyn and 1960s rural Iran) adult Leila’s father needs a heart transplant. And Leila is hurting from her failed marriage. In flashback, we see her bringing her wife to Thanksgiving dinner and her mother, unable to approve of the gay relationship, ultimately kicking the couple out in disgust.
What has made her mother’s heart so cold, particularly with her daughter? Leila’s grandmother hints that a mysterious scandal long ago brought Shireen to America. To understand, we’re taken back to that village in Iran, where Shireen was a bride at 14, coping with early motherhood and heartbreak. Luckily, this section of the film stars an extraordinary young actor, Kamand Shafieisabet in her first film, packing an emotional wallop into every scene.
As vividly as Keshavarz portrays the country of her heritage, she is unable to return there — her first feature, “Circumstance,” about sexual desire between two girls in Iran, won her her first audience award at Sundance but also got her banned from the country.
In any case we end “The Persian Version” not in Iran but back in the States, in a place not usually very comical but where most comedies involving a birth, even a dramatic comedy like this, eventually wind up: the maternity ward.
The scene here is intentionally crowded and yes, chaotic, just like the entire film. But it ends on a note that brings easy tears.
The rebelliousness of each of the strong women here — mother and daughter — somehow coalesces into understanding. Such moments can be sappy, but here, as with her lovely opening shot, Keshavarz does it well. She sticks the landing.
“The Persian Version,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, in limited release Friday and nationwide on Nov. 3, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association “for language and some sexual references.” Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.