A weighty topic receives lush but eventually contrived treatment in Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz's debut (based on her own experiences) about two teenage girls' blossoming feelings for each other in modern-day Tehran. Sixteen-year-old Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), the rebellious daughter of a wealthy liberal family, and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), her best friend who's still stained by her deceased parents' anti-government writings, have a closeness that's forbidden in Iran; away from prying male eyes, they caress, kiss, and dream of escaping to Dubai for sexy clubbing and trysts in bedrooms overlooking the glistening ocean. Such fantasies are kept close to the vest, and depicted by Keshavarz with a focus on tangible corporeality, with close-ups of intertwined flesh, and red lips on red fingernails, creating a sense of passionate physicality far removed from the hajib-proscribed modesty and submissiveness demanded of them from society at large. This amorous heat provides the story with its initial jolt, as do scenes of the two striking girls visiting parties where stylish Western dress is the norm and entry requires the password "sewing class," as well as frequenting video stores hidden behind barbershops—venues for subtle subversive revolt against a misogynistic status quo, which the friends also enact via their playfully reactionary work dubbing Milk in Farsi.
Circumstance's detailed familiarity with its milieu can be bracing, authentically capturing the subterranean subculture that flourishes beneath the country's more austere exterior. At first, that realism also extends to its snapshot of Atafeh's domestic life, especially with regards to her warm if spiky rapport with her powerful, classical music-adoring father Firooz (Soheil Parsa). Refusing to posit him as a clichéd caricature of domineering masculinity, Keshavarz instead presents Firooz as a caring if essentially compromised figure, a man who mistakes his teenage experiences for that of his daughter's, and whose theoretical belief in equality—in a touchingly offhand comment, he proclaims a desire for a day in which he might swim in the ocean at the same time as his daughter—is complicated by pressing peer pressures. Yet whereas Firooz, despite being generally relegated to the margins, exhibits tantalizing nuances, no such intricacy characterizes the escalating drama that stems from the arrival of Atafeh's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), a once-promising musician just out of rehab whose response to addiction has been to turn to fundamentalism, and whose every conniving deed seems calculated to further the film's message at the expense of believability.
Since Mehran's embrace of hardline Islam is never dramatized or elaborated on in any insightful way, it quickly exudes the stench of a creaky plot device, an impression confirmed once Mehran begins obsessively spying on his family via security cameras (which, extraordinarily, no one in the house notices) and exploiting the country's ingrained sexism to pry the coveted Shireen from Atafeh's grasp. These latter acts topple the material full-bore into melodrama, sabotaging the early-going's convincing, compelling feel for youthful insurrection against stifling tradition in favor of more standard, less plausible tensions and conflicts. Casting Iran as a sinister social and political labyrinth designed to ensnare—and thus ensure docile acquiescence from—its female citizenry is no doubt justified, but the twists and turns of Circumstance prove increasingly formulaic and phony, especially once Mehran completes his transition from beaten-down recovering junkie to malevolent monster. Devoid of a more complex portrait of Mehran's underlying motivations, Firooz's social standing (and contentious relationship to the town's religious leader), or Atafeh's ill-defined mother's (Nasrin Pakkho) perspective on her children's warring liberal/conservative lifestyles, the film, to its detriment, shifts its focus away from the human condition and toward plot-driven heartstring-tugging.