‘Shayda’ Review: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi is Riveting in Noora Niasari’s Measured Debut

Feb 4, 2023

Home Movie Reviews ‘Shayda’ Review: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi is Riveting in Noora Niasari’s Measured Debut | Sundance 2023

This well-directed, written, and acted character study never loses sight of the woman at its center.

Image via Sundance

When reflecting on a film like Shayda, the feature debut from the Iranian-Australian writer-director Noora Niasari, the more it is that the small details begin to stand out in the mind. A scene where characters find joy in dance can be just as impactful as one where all-too-common violence comes rushing in. The winner of the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival for good reason, it is a work that immerses us in this tableau of a life that has been completely upended and, piece by piece, is being rebuilt. Drawing from the personal experiences of Nisari herself, like many great films of late have done, her vision brings this all to life with universally strong performances across the board. It all makes for an unblinking, if occasionally uneven in some of its developments, examination of the long road back to tranquility when all else has been thrown into chaos.

Navigating this new life is Shayda, played by a multifaceted Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who has moved into a women’s shelter in Australia. She is there with her 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) and is attempting to divorce her abusive husband. The community of women that are there with her, many of whom have children of their own, are united by a desire to merely have a life that is free from fear where they can begin again. For Shayda, this becomes even more difficult when she is told by a judge that she must let Mona’s father see her in unsupervised visitations. In an early scene, we come to understand how she is worried that he could subsequently take her daughter from her and return to Iran without much of anything she could do to stop it. It is this dread that lingers over everything as the wheels of justice move slowly for Shayda. The life she is doing all she can to build remains one that she has to hold onto tightly as everything else around her seems built to rip it from her grasp.

As all of this continues to escalate, Niasari finds glimpses of light in the growing darkness. This is done not to ever paper over the grim realities of what is happening in the story. Rather, it is a way to deepen the emotional impact of everything playing out as we see what it is that Shayda desires for herself and her daughter. For every painful conversation she has with the woman running the shelter, Leah Purcell’s Joyce, about what it was that happened to her in order to prepare for legal proceedings, there is a peaceful time that she shares with Mona.

This all takes place even as their world has come undone, and their future remains uncertain. Even with all of this looming, there is a powerful bond that they have with each other and the other women in the shelter. For all the ways there are others that have turned their back on Shayda, there is something moving in seeing how people coming together can help shoulder the many challenges they would otherwise have to face alone. Niasari lets these scenes play out patiently yet honestly, building the world from the ground up until you feel as though you know each one of these characters. The more we get of them, the better the film is.

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It all shows that this journey isn’t ever easy as Shayda knows that she can’t make the life she wants for herself or her daughter in the confines of a house with multiple other families. The film never sugarcoats this as it grapples honestly with how mentally draining such a living arrangement away can be even as it is the only one that is safe for her to live in. Still, the slivers of joy that she is able to carve out are ones that Niasari shoots with reverence. The more we come to see mother and daughter sharing moments of joy together, the more agonizing it is when they are forced apart. Even as the scenes where the young girl is ordered by the court to spend time with her father are rather short, they seem far longer as the dread Shayda feels is proven correct again and again without any possibility for her to get help.

It isn’t just her husband either as Niasari shows us how many others from her former community have turned their back on her since she left him. This is introduced subtly with steely stares punctuated by hushed conversations that establish how, no matter what room she is in, there is always the possibility that she is being judged merely for doing everything she could to protect herself and her daughter. Though she has those that care about her, there is continually the crushing feeling that she may forever remain an outcast in the eyes of many which only compounds the ongoing injustice that is at the core of the entire situation.

As Niasari brings us further and further into the harsh realities of Shayda’s life, she never loses sight of her humanity in the process. While there are other such films that sand down all the nuances of the characters to the point of feeling punishing and shallow in how it defines them by their pain, this one always manages to strike a better balance. It never shies away from the agony she is going through, but neither does it forget about who Shayda is along the way. Even when she begins to discover that this is all going to be something she must deal with for the rest of her life, she also discovers newfound freedom as a result.

This culminates in a final scene where, without saying much of anything at all, Ebrahimi reveals so much about Shayda and how this experience has transformed her. It ensures that, in the process of undertaking a study about power and control, the film also never forgets to be a rich character study as it builds all the way to these concluding moments. Throughout all of it, Ebrahimi gives a performance that, even in immense isolation, tells a whole story on its own and leaves a lingering impression long after the film itself comes to a close.

Rating: B+

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