February 4, 2023

Sundance 2023 Reviews: “The Persian Version,” “The Starling Girl,” & “The Accidental Getaway Driver”


THE PERSIAN VERSION (Sony Classics):  Maryam Keshavarz’s dramedy won the Sundance Audience Award in the US Dramatic Competition, and it’s a smart mixture of broad comedy and family drama.  The comedy is mostly set in the present day, where aspiring filmmaker Leila (Layla Mohammadi), tries to keep her distance from her mother Shireen (Niousha Noor), who has unending criticism for her daughter, the only girl in a family of 9, and the way she leads her professional and personal life.  But distance becomes impossible when Leila’s father requires a heart transplant, and things become more complicated when the mostly queer Leila gets pregnant after what was supposed to be a one night stand with a British actor (Tom Byrne) playing the lead in a revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Mother and daughter continue to scrape against each other, and Leila goes to her grandmother (Bella Ward), who helps Leila to finally understand her mother (played in flashbacks by Kamand Shafiesabet) by imparting the story of Shireen’s troubled past.  Keshavarz’s film is immensely likable, and it does a tidy job of tying up its emotional narratives.  The cast is appealing across the board, and the Iran-set flashbacks pack a punch.  The filmmaker also keeps things hopping by constantly shuffling between timeframes and continents, and employing devices like fourth-wall breaking direct address to the audience, comical graphics and musical numbers.  (Sometimes she’s too clever for her own good:  when one narrator abruptly takes over for another, it’s not clear whether the replacement is still talking to Leila.)  Despite all this, and the general infrequency of Iranian-American stories on screen, a lot of The Persian Version feels familiar and even staid, from the pregnancy and family gags to the inevitably sentimental resolution of the tension between mother and daughter.  The result is more satisfying than exciting, luke-warm tea served in a fresh cup.

THE STARLING GIRL (Bleecker Street):  So much the Sundance playbook that it could be called Festival Classic.  Take one part disaffected teen (Eliza Scanlen) in a rural fundamentalist Kentucky town, add parents (Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt) who just don’t get her, and introduce a catalyst in the form of a forbidden and unwise love, then shake.  For Jem, the problematic man is her local youth pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), who’s older, in a position of authority, and very much married.  Things can’t go well, and they don’t.  The most interesting parts of Laurel Parmet’s film aren’t the central conflicts, but the details about life in Jem’s Christian community, where even apart from her romantic life, she bristles at the elders who call for her to censor her dance presentation because her movements aren’t sufficiently humble, and her father, once a professional musician and sinner, has to listen to country music in secret.  Jem’s struggles with her parents and lover are more predictable, and even though Scanlen gives a sensitive lead performance and the other actors are solid, there’s little here that feels original.

THE ACCIDENTAL GETAWAY DRIVER:  Sing J. Lee won the US Dramatic Directing Award at Sundance, but to this viewer, The Accidental Getaway Driver was self-indulgent and tedious.  Based on a true story, the film (written by Lee and Christopher Chen) is about Long (Hiep Tran Nghia), an elderly Vietnamese-American driver for hire in California, who gets a late-night call insistently asking for a ride.  Reluctantly, he answers the call, only to discover that he’s been summoned by a trio of prison escapees, who hold him captive while they work on their plan to get out of the country.  That all makes Accidental Getaway Driver sound much more absorbing than it is.  The bulk of the film consist of lengthy scenes at a motel and other static locations, often photographed by Michael Cambio Fernandez in near-darkness, where the criminals talk in circles as they try to decide what to do next and periodically threaten Tran, while he mostly looks at them with incomprehension.  There are occasionally fragmentary flashbacks to Tran’s tortured past in Southeast Asia.  Eventually the script zeroes in on a growing bond between Tran and one of his captors Tay (Dustin Nguyen), the supposed tension coming from the likelihood that the leader of the gang Aden (Dali Benssalah) will decide that Tran knows too much to live, and whether Tay will let the worst happen.  Nghia gives a dignified performance in the lead, and there are occasional moments of emotional connection, but by the end of its 109-minute running time, you may find yourself rooting only that Tran’s fate, whatever it is, comes quickly.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."