Evoking a ‘60s rock revolution aesthetic, Maryam opens with the Cars’ “Let the Good Times Roll” played over footage of Iranian upheaval in the late ‘70s. You get the feeling that this is going to be one of those raucous, youthful, moment-in- time movies. But while Maryam is an earnest and heartfelt film, it never rises to the darkly euphoric rush of 1969’s Medium Cool, which unflinchingly explored the boundaries of journalism and fiction during the disastrous Democratic National Convention in 1968. Like Medium Cool, Maryam relies heavily on documentary footage to contextualize its story as an important moment of American (and global) history. Unlike Medium Cool, Maryam never takes a real stand—its volatile opening’s promise of a meditation on the media and politics is never fulfilled. A lack of thesis makes Maryam, in the end, play out with the intellectual and emotional impact of an after-school special.
It’s 1979, and Maryam Armin (Mariam Parris) is an Iranian-American teenager who moved to the United States as a young child. She tries to be a “normal” American teen, but her family keeps getting in the way; her strict father, for instance, forbids dating or much socializing at all. Additionally, her brooding, angry orphaned cousin Ali (David Ackert) has just arrived from Iran to live with the family and earn an advanced degree in physics. Passionately pro-Ayatollah and devoutly Muslim, Ali believes that Maryam’s father betrayed his own father as a revolutionary to the Shah’s secret police, thus indirectly causing his death.
Mariam Parris, David Ackert, Shaun Toub, Shohreh Aghdashloo
US theatrical: 22 Feb 2002 (Limited release)
Ali’s presence complicates Maryam’s high school dramas, like her crush on corn- fed, all-American Jamie, and her conflicts with Jill, the popular blonde who torments Maryam because of her outside (i.e., foreigner) status. Tensions climb even higher when Americans are taken hostage in Iran, and the Armins’ quiet little Jersey suburb becomes a hotbed of prejudice and racism. All the difficulties of being a teenager are exacerbated by extreme displays of nationalism and almost comically blunt comments like “We’re going to be watching all you Iranians pretty damn closely” from law authorities and the community.
The flag-waving and discrimination of 1979 has, over the past six months, resurfaced with a vengeance, and Maryam‘s distribution has undoubtedly benefited from current events. Director Ramin Serry places well-chosen news footage of Iranian and American protests, rallies, and turmoil between scenes, which works effectively in raising tensions to a fevered pitch and as a reminder that the present is not the first time American patriotism has risen to dangerous levels.
Just as the documentary footage places Maryam in a historical context, Parris’ honest and comfortable performance reminds the audience that this is also a story about being a teenager. She flip-flops between identities as a typical American 16-year- old and as a young woman just beginning to explore the question of cultural responsibility; while she wants so desperately to go to parties and discos with her classmates, she is also the only Armin who pays attention to Ali’s tormented emotions. Her simple and genuine performance is the film’s main selling point. Otherwise, Maryam has all the depth of a television melodrama.
Like a soap opera, Maryam is so predictable that when townsfolk hurl a brick through the Armins’ window, it’s hardly shocking. Because of Parris’ fine performance, however, ignorant sentiments directly affecting Maryam rather than her whole family resonate quite deeply, such as when Jill tells her that her “mustache,” which must be a common problem for “you people,” is plainly visible. This taut moment in the girls’ bathroom is filled with raw and brutal emotion that elicits real empathy. But this is as strong a stance as Maryam takes: racism is bad, tolerance is good. Certainly this is a valuable message, especially in the contexts of both the 1979 hostage crisis and our own current events. A universalizing morality, however, does not make for a particularly memorable film.
Ultimately, Maryam is so disappointing because of the unfulfilled promise of a firm stand on news broadcasting and the media. Maryam participates in a current events club where she and several other students act as news anchors for the rest of her school; combined with the footage between scenes and in the opening credits, this suggests that Maryam will go a Medium Cool route and eventually make a point about skewed journalism and its impossible goal of objectivity. Unfortunately, these themes are never fully explored, and rather than build to an explosive climax, Maryam fizzles to a slow halt.
Medium Cool ends with a television camera slowly panning around to face the audience as an unseen crowd chants “The whole world is watching.” In an era of mass, immediate communication, every little upheaval rocks the globe to its core; at the same time, the blurring of fact and fiction by newspapers, radio, and especially television means that viewer passivity is dangerous now more than ever. Maryam‘s tired and predictable conclusion, however, replete with teary farewells at the airport, suggests an almost polar opposite to Medium Cool‘s devastating final statement: the revolution will be televised, but this time it’s a melodrama.