By Jonathon Sharp

Emotionally explosive and wonderfully amorphous, About Elly is a 2009 film out of Iran getting its well-deserved release in the U.S. just now. Directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past), the film is a naturalistic drama that could easily be described as a thriller. Its characters are believable and mysterious, and the film highlights, to Western eyes, the weight honor holds in cultures built around it.

Set on the Caspian Sea, the story follows three couples and their kids as they vacation for the weekend out to a villa. The trip is sloppily organized by Sepideh (played by a stunning Golshifteh Farahani), who at the last minute gets her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly, to come along. The hope is to match her up with Sepideh’s recently divorced brother, who’s visiting from Germany. The trip is all laughs and tea and sea-side volleyball until one of the kids is found floating in the water and Elly disappears. Panic strikes when the vacationers realize they don’t even know this girl’s full name. Lies are uncovered and more lies are told as it becomes clear that people are looking for Elly, and they want answers.

What emerges in the end is a palpable sense of what living in an honor culture must be like. For a Western viewer, the experience is moving, perhaps not dissimilar to exploring new psychological frontiers. Through Farahani’s incredible performance, the film taps into the anxiety over how one’s actions can affect society’s view of people we hold dear. For Sepideh, it all ends up as a choice between telling the truth, or ruining her friend’s reputation/future/family name.

It’s also worth mentioning that the film’s visuals are just as natural and complicated as its characters. The dilapidated villa where the couples stay contrasts with the beauty of the rolling sea, adding an element of tension between the power of nature and the fragility of human constructs. While film may risk running a little long, it’s pacing undulates so impressively from mundane to madness that it’s easy to bear a few extra minutes, especially when the end offers the promise of answers.

About Elly is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.

Jonathon Sharp