‘Shayda’: A daughter’s remembrance of a mother’s courage

The Iranian French actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi has the eyes of a silent film heroine and the face of a Modigliani. In repose, she can convey a sense of sorrow that feels both elegant and timeless, but in “Shayda,” that stillness is fraught with specific threat: the anguish of a woman fleeing an abusive husband.

Made with a striking sensitivity to mood and moment, “Shayda” marks a strong debut for Iranian Australian writer-director Noora Niasari, who mines her own experience and that of her mother for a gripping yet tender suspense drama. It matters that the story is seen through the eyes of both the title character, an Iranian émigré in Melbourne, and her 5-year-old daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia). Both are experiencing upheaval, rootlessness and panic, and both learn how to navigate life and whom to trust.

“Shayda” opens in a shelter run by Joyce (Leah Purcell), a big, warm bear-hug of a woman and a fierce protector of the broken wives, mothers, partners and children under her roof. Shayda and Mona have arrived there after a marital assault that has traumatized both of them and that sends Shayda, asked to recount it in preparation for a divorce hearing, into a PTSD meltdown. Yet the film also shows the mother’s resilience and quiet day-to-day joy, and it doesn’t stint on either the daughter’s whinier moments or her solemn and growing support for Shayda.

The father, Hossein (Osamah Sami), remains off-screen for a while, and when he has a court-ordered visit with Mona in a shopping mall, he arrives bearing gifts and apologies. “I’ve changed,” he swears, and perhaps he believes it, but in the campaign to win back his daughter’s affection with Lion King toys and soccer jerseys, we see hints of a paranoid jealousy that’s as much patriarchal as personal.

While this may be true to the filmmaker’s experience, it feels somewhat familiar as narrative, and “Shayda” is more freshly told when it attends to Shayda’s coming out of the shell of her former life and back to something like who she once was. She and Hossein came to Australia while he studied to be a doctor, and the Iranian immigrant community of which they’re part is split between shaming Shayda for daring to leave her husband and doing all it can to shore her up. For every older woman who refuses to be in the same room with her, there’s an ally like Elly (Rina Mousavi), who helps shepherd Shayda back into the world on her own terms.

Is Elly’s cousin Farhad (Mojean Aria), newly arrived from Canada and both enlightened and gently attentive toward Shayda, too much of a plot convenience? Perhaps, but his presence allows her to take several steps outside the prison of fear Hossein has put her in.

Ebrahimi’s performance is exquisitely observed and observant, the flip side of the actress’s dauntless journalist tracking a serial killer in 2022’s fearsome “Holy Spider” (available on Netflix and recommended). Shayda loves dancing and music — the soundtrack repeatedly returns to “Parandeh,” a 1970 song by the Iranian pop legend Googoosh with lyrics that tell of a broken bird too exhausted to fly — and she loves performing small kindnesses for other people. The Persian new year, Nowruz, serves the film and its heroine equally as a metaphor for a woman’s rebirth and an excuse to celebrate life.

Above all, “Shayda” views the sisterhood of domestic violence with the empathy of someone who has witnessed it at close hand. Eve Morey, Lucinda Armstrong Hall and Jillian Nguyen play the other residents of the women’s shelter, and while there are minor tiffs among them, the more profound relationship is a sharing of sadness and strength that obliterates differences of ethnicity and class. The glimpses of home-video footage under the end credits, of the filmmaker’s mother and herself at Mona’s age, are mementos of a time Niasari clearly treasures for all its hardship. “Shayda” could have been a horror story. Instead, it’s a survivor’s tale, and it’s suffused with gratitude and love.

PG-13. At area theaters. Thematic material involving domestic abuse, some violence and language. 117 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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