Maryam takes place in a murky period of the past, a time shortly after the setting of That Seventies Show but still well before the period traced out in That Eighties Show. It was a time when roller disco was still a viable athletic activity, when rainbow suspenders had just penetrated the hinterlands, and when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was being taken over by militant young students who were a bit upset that the man who had ordered the murder and torture of thousands of their compatriots was being given safe haven in a cushy U.S. hospital.
The titular Maryam, or Mary, as she's known in the U.S., is a high school student who lives in suburban New Jersey, just out of view of the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan. Her family emigrated to the United States from Iran 10 years earlier, and her father has set up a comfortable life for himself, Mary, and his wife.
When the revolution breaks out in Iran, Mary's cousin Ali comes to the United States to go to college, and he moves in with Mary's family.
However, unlike them, he's embraced traditional Islam, and his presence creates the kind of tension that culturally sensitive filmmakers thrive on. The mix becomes even more complicated when the hostages are taken, and an anti-Iranian sentiment causes Mary's neighbors and friends to turn against her family.
In the hands of a sap like Steven Spielberg this movie would have been as treacly as a bottle of Karo, but first-time director Ramin Serry steers clear of everything that would have turned this into a manipulative emotion-fest. There's no intrusive music to tell you what to feel, no long, unnatural expositions, and no jarring camera work. In fact, there's basically no camera work, as everything is shot in a fairly neutral style. Maryam won't be winning any cinematography awards, but I think the idea was to keep the filmmaking from interfering with the story, and the lack of the contemporary style of showiness in the imagery works towards that end.
What really stands out, though, are the performances, all by non-stars. Mariam Parris, as Maryam/Mary, does a great job of looking perplexed and determined, in the manner of bright teen faced with a confusing situation. David Ackert does a perfect deadpan as Ali, the only character who fits the American stereotype of an Iranian (i.e., he's a humorless fundamentalist), and comedian Maz Jobrani is fittingly goofy as Reza, another cousin of Mary's who's been in the U.S. for a while and who pretty much fits the Middle Eastern stereotype of an Iranian.
Which is to say that Reza is a party guy who's mostly interested in drinking, having fun, and getting some action. One of the nicest things about prejudices is how they vary from country to country. In strong contrast to American views, the German stereotype of the French is that they are hyper-efficient, remorseless killers; Columbians prejudge Argentinians as stuck-up snobs; and Arabs are predisposed to think of Iranians as ne'er-do-well party-mongers and lazy dope fiends.
What's nice about Maryam is that it presents a very real portrayal of its Iranian subjects. Yes, one of them is a fundamentalist, and one of them is a partyguy, but the rest are just basic suburbanites with the same kind of interest in their religion that most American Christians and Jews have towards theirs, which is to say it has some effect on how they celebrate holidays and what kind of decorations they have in the kitchen.
Maryam also does a good job of showing the nasty reaction of Mary's neighbors without making those neighbors seem like villains. When one of them puts up a "We Don't Serve Iranians" sign in his store window, he's fittingly embarrassed when Mary's father stops by. When another begs out of going to a party at Mary's house, she's later ashamed of her behavior and tries to make amends.
The refusal to vilify, and the very sensitive presentation of the way culture affects expression of feeling, sets Maryam apart from the slicker presentations on similar subjects that have come out of Hollywood. This is no The Siege, which, as well-intentioned as I'm sure that film was, was a ridiculously clumsy exploration of anti-Arab prejudice. Maryam is more like an Eric Rohmer movie in the way it's shot and in its emphasis on feelings. Of course, this doesn't preclude its having a strong political content, it just makes that content human and engaging to watch.