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Maryam

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Ramin Serry's debut feature, Maryam, takes place in an Iranian-American household in suburban New Jersey in 1979, just before and just after U.S. hostages are seized in Tehran. Mariam Parris plays the title character, the 16-year-old daughter of a prosperous doctor and a socialite mother. Parris is smart, pretty, generally well-liked, and happy, until two crises disrupt her life. First, a born-again Muslim cousin played by David Ackert comes to live with her family, bringing reminders of the circumstances of their painful departure from their home country. Second, the hostage crisis begins, and suddenly friendly neighbors begin to regard her and her parents with distrust. Writer-director Serry was himself a 10-year-old Iranian-American boy in 1979, and many of the slights and insults in Maryam come from his direct personal experience. The film captures the way attitudes change quickly, as Americans with little knowledge of Iran go from making genial-but-condescending jokes about Middle Easterners to posting signs in their shop windows that read "We Don't Serve Iranians," without any intervening attempt to understand the complexity and heartbreak of the situation. Serry also has a surprising handle on the difficulties of being a teenage girl of ethnic descent, and how they make the awkwardness and isolation of adolescence doubly pronounced. Maryam is absorbing and insightful when he focuses on the subtleties of a family's generational and cultural conflict, but the film veers regularly into Movie Of The Week (or even Afterschool Special) "big moments" that play like forced attempts to tell a personal story while insecurely adhering to a commercial formula. There are misunderstandings that lead to fistfights, there are obnoxious snubs, and there's a ridiculous sequence in which Ackert buys a gun and plans to kill the Shah. Maryam feels like it was designed to play to festival crowds, who often appreciate nods to conventional narrative after days of slogging through sometimes-dreary indie statements. Serry succeeds in making the film watchable, but his meaningful observations about how prejudice can sprout in seemingly dry ground deserve a structure as tough and original as his own experience.