Like Kandahar, the film Maryam got an unexpected post-9/11 windfall. A film that might otherwise have been a blip on the cultural map got a cheerleader in Roger Ebert and found its way into a surprising number of theatres. Writer-director Ramin Serry uses the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis to raise questions of cultural misunderstanding and institutionalized racism which were plenty relevant when he wrote and directed the film, if not more so now. But at heart, Maryam is a domestic drama, about the cultural misunderstandings within a family and children's search for their roles in the world as they come of age.
London-born Mariam Parris plays the precocious Maryam, a New Jersey high school senior who happens to be Iranian-American and isn't allowed to forget it for a minute. The school environment is passive-agressive; as usual, the worst racist offenses come in casual and oblivious ways. At home, Maryam must deal with a curveball: the arrival of her strident cousin Ali (David Ackert), who has come from Tehran to study at a local university. Like the youngsters, Maryam's parents (played by Persian stars Shaun Toub and Shohreh Aghdashloo) have lost their equilibrium, tentatively troubleshooting in the face of harsh resistence.
The story that follows humorously (and sometimes poignantly) taints the usual high school trials with Maryam's own personal identity struggles, inextricably tied up in her cultural heritage and family history. Meanwhile, Ali is trailed by demons from the family's past and provoked by the hostile (and diametrically opposed) American political climate. Maddeningly for Maryam, she becomes Ali's charge, and she learns perhaps more than she wants to know about her family and her country.
Serry handles the culture clash convincingly and keeps matters intriguing and leavened with humor. He also ably establishes a social context with an opening montage (reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh's Peter's Friends) that sets news footage to the Cars' "Godd Times Roll." Though there's a touch of the Afterschool Special about it, Maryam is sophisticated enough to stir thought and feeling about how little has fundamentally changed over the last two American decades.