Starring Mahour Jabbari. In Farsi, with English subtitles. Rated PG
What in Hollywood might serve as the setup for a mindless teen comedy—girl makes bet with friends about dating a boy—turns into a nightmare in Tehran-set Ava. In fact, don’t be surprised if the relentless tension and the tightening grip of repression on its high-school heroine bring to mind extremely removed experiences—like watching the East German–set The Lives of Others or reading 1984.
The effect speaks to the artistic powers of first-time Iranian-Canadian filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi, who shows a strong cinematic eye—the title heroine (Mahour Jabbari) seems always boxed in behind windows and doorways. Foroughi also displays an amazing knack for building pressure and momentum out of small domestic conflicts. Try not to cringe in the scene where Ava attempts a secret—and in this world, unspeakably dangerous—phone call while her mother is in the shower. That Foroughi was somehow allowed to shoot this politically volatile film in Tehran makes things all the more fascinating.
You’ll find Ava’s teen rebellion achingly familiar; she’s a wallflower trying to stand out by wearing a red backpack and matching Chuck Taylor All Stars with her dour school uniform. Her bet is so innocent it only requires her to go to the boy’s house—but it brings the fist of authority down on her in a society obsessed with keeping girls pure. At school, fuelled by the snitches they encourage, the teachers start searching her bag and interrogating her. At home, irate that she may have been with a boy alone, Ava’s mother drags her daughter to the gynecologist, cuts her off from her friends, and threatens to take away her violin. It’s the mother’s actions that are most distressing here—because Foroughi makes it clear she thinks she’s doing it out of care (not to mention regret for her own past mistakes).
We’re terrified for Ava, but what comes through, despite her few words, is the character’s strength and courage; it’s a gripping, steely performance, complex and smart in a way you don’t often see teen girls portrayed—anywhere. But coming of age, depicted so enthusiastically in North American films, is intensely painful here. For this girl in Iran, it feels more like facing up to a life sentence.