Director Noora Niasari’s debut Shayda––and Australia’s submission for Best International Feature at next year’s Oscars––is quite literally a lifetime in the making. Largely inspired by traumatic events from her own childhood as an Iranian immigrant in Australia, Niasari has repeatedly expressed that she still has a difficult time speaking about her film, the events depicted continuing to touch a raw nerve even as she’s separated from them by decades. And while the resulting work is too narrative-focused to ever be described as a pure “memory piece,” it’s littered with highly specific, lived-in details that appear to be directly lifted from her own experiences.  

The prominence of a Simba Happy Meal toy as a recurring factor in the plot, for example, feels like an inclusion only afforded relevance because the director was a child when first bearing witness to similar events. Of course a young girl would put outsized importance on a cheap plastic lion from McDonald’s when recollecting this tale, and even as this take on the story isn’t told from the child’s perspective, it’s one of several small, impactful ways Niasari aims to stay true to how she observed this story first-hand. 

The writer-director has spoken of how it was integral for her to understand her mother’s take before she could share this story, going so far as to ask her to write memoirs that served as the screenplay’s foundation. Her parental surrogate is played here by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, living with her young daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) in a Melbourne women’s shelter after leaving her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami). Divorce proceedings are inevitably prolonged by his refusal to fully engage with the process, adamant that the current state of the relationship is a stopgap, and that even in the worst-case scenario he’ll still be able to take his daughter back to Tehran with him––despite his behavior suggesting otherwise.  

It’s this character that provides the film with its biggest conundrum; even as he’s written in line with the way he was perceived by both his ex-wife and daughter, the performance strays towards far broader, more openly melodramatic territory in a way that overwhelms the otherwise restrained character drama. Compare his first organized weekend visit with Mona to the ones that come after; in the first, he presents the image of a changed man, a façade that doesn’t slip and which only heightens Shayda’s anguish when he’s slightly late returning her daughter. It’s the kind of passive-aggressive, psychologically abusive behavior exhibited by countless petty men going through divorces, subtly preying on their partners’ more vulnerable emotions in a way that leaves enough room for a casual bystander to afford the benefit of the doubt.  

Instead of slowly backsliding into overtly abusive behavior, by the time of the second arranged visit, he’s already reverted to becoming a psychopath, stalking his ex-wife with a camera before he begins to show up uninvited to different social events she’s attending. It seems insensitive to point out how unsatisfying this is within the drama, considering its grounding in true events, but Sami’s performance is far less unnerving when he lays all cards on the table. The brief moments he presents an illusion of reform are far more unsettling, even if this has its basis in a memory that looms less large for the director and her mother than his more outwardly manipulative, violent actions. Admittedly, having been witness to similar events within my own family, I fully accept that I may be projecting my own experiences of this phenomenon onto someone else’s memories––some abusers are certainly better at hiding their true colors than others.  

This is my only cause of concern with this well-realized debut, which aims to demonstrate how the lives of Shayda and her daughter weren’t defined by traumatic events, even if it was impossible not to be shaped by them. While resisting easy sentimentality at every turn, Niasari depicts the challenges of resuming a normal social life––be it going out to clubs with friends or going on dates––when you’ve been placed in a position where it’s natural to become paranoid, always concerned that your ex is watching and scrutinizing every move in order to paint you as an unfit parent. Nothing Hossein does in the film is quite as well thought-through, but the idea lingers across each scene he isn’t present, adding tension to the social interactions many of us take for granted.  

Similarly, its portrayal of a childhood under these turbulent circumstances is unnerving, Zahednia delivering one of the most revelatory child performances of recent memory––almost entirely through silently terrified reaction shots. Few films have articulated the connection between a young child’s facial expressions and the feelings they’re afraid to express out-loud quite as well as this; it’s noticeably these moments where Sami’s performance hits closest to home, tasking him with restraining his character’s volatile emotions in a way he struggles to elsewhere.  

Once again, I return to this supporting performance as my main source of conflict with the film. If we’re witnessing events from a child’s perspective, then his increasingly unrestrained villainy feels natural to the semi-autobiographical recollection––if nothing else, his presence overwhelms the story, keenly felt as he’s largely absent. Regardless of where I eventually land on Sami’s turn, the character study surrounding it likely wouldn’t be as effective were it not in opposition to the threat he posed. This movie may be named after Shayda, but the character it proves to be defined by is the one so infrequently seen, for better and for worse. 

Shayda opens for one week at The Village East in New York and The Royal in Los Angeles on December 1, 2023, followed by a nationwide release in theaters in early 2024.

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