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The Independent Critic

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mojean Aria, Leah Purcell, Jillian Nguyen, Osamah Sami, Eve Morey, Selina Zahednia
Noora Niasari
Rated PG-13
117 Mins.
Sony Pictures Classics

 Movie Review: Shayda 
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I have long been convinced that it is nearly impossible to create a perfect film about domestic violence. Writer/director Noori Niasari's Shayda, however, comes close in its portrayal of a young Iranian woman, Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), and her six-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) as they attempt to survive in an Australian women's shelter. Shayda seeks freedom from Mona's father Hossein (Osamah Sami), a man capable of being both charming and charismatic and offering glimpses of the jealousy and possessiveness that it is apparent has turned into domestic abuse from which Shayda now runs. 

Shayda was the Dramatic Feature Audience Award winner at Sundance this past year, picked up by Sony Classics for an arthouse runand having none other than Cate Blanchett signed on as its executive producer. The film was also Australia's entry into the Best International Feature category in the 2024 Academy Awards. Shayda is a film, much like most films centered around the theme of domestic abuse, that could have gone wildly wrong. Nearly every film around domestic abuse does go wildly wrong, exploitative and manipulative being the narrative tendency but for the most part being avoided here. Niasari has based the film, set in 1995, on her own story as a child in a women's shelter with her mother some thirty years ago now. While that could lend itself to poignant flashbacks, it's clear fairly early on that Shayda isn't here to glorify the violence. The film's PG-13 rating illustrates that we're here not to stylize trauma but to embrace this woman and the life she is attempting to give her daughter in a culture where justice comes secondary to that very culture and its expectations and norms. 

It says a lot about the wonder that is a Sundance audience that such a film captured its audience award. Shayda is both a difficult film to watch and a impossible to not watch. Much of this has to do with the mesmerizing performance by Zar Amir Ebrahimi as Shayda, a woman who barely goes anyplace without being the "other" including within the "safe" walls of the Australian women's shelter. Ebrahimi's is a fantastic performance that wears both Shayda's scars and her fierce maternalism and commitment to love and to giving Mona a safe and free childhood. 

Young Selina Zahednia is an absolute marvel as Mona, heartbreaking and so compelling that you'll be drawn to her from beginning to end. 

It is to Osamah Sami's great credit as an actor that we're drawn to Hossein despite being repulsed by the tense, abusive world that he has created. It's not so much that we sympathize, however, Sami does seem to demand that we humanize this man whom it is likely fair to say has been raised to be exactly who he is. Does it excuse his behavior? Heavens no. However, it does demand that we see Hossein as man not monster. We understand why Shayda was with him, however, we also understand why she can now barely look at him. 

It is, perhaps, unsurprising that Shayda didn't snag an Oscar nomination this year. It lacks the usual histrionics and dramatic highs. It finds its story in everyday life and with quietly yet masterfully portrayed characters. 

Shayda captures so vividly the finer nuances of an abusive relationship that even if I didn't know that the story is based upon Niasari's own experiences I would practically assume so. This feels less like a story and more like a real life. There's the sense of isolation. There's the sense of being "othered." There's the glimpses of Shayda experiencing moments of freedom and having moments of immense love with her child no matter how difficult the circumstances become. This all unfolds during the Persian New Year, known as Nowruz, a communal time yet one that exposes amplified isolation and risks.

Shayda is a remarkable feature filmmaking debut for Niasari, a beautifully constructed film with honest, vulnerable storytelling that stays with you long after the closing credits have rolled and you're left to wonder about life after the credits. You're also left with gratitude that somehow Niasari has created such a work of wonder from her own experiences. 

Currently on its indie arthouse run, Shayda is a film best to be seen in, yes, community. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic