God and the Single Girl 

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Circumstance
Directed by Maryam Keshavarz

Opens August 26

Higher Ground
Vera Farmiga

Opening August 26

A bassline is "orgasmic," exclaims a 16-year-old Iranian girl, shaking her scarf-covered head ecstatically in the backseat of the cab taking her and her friend to a party. Flirty, wealthy Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and the more reserved, classically beautiful Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), the daughter of dissident writers, strip off conservative garb to reveal spangly minidresses and off-the-shoulder blouses, themselves something like uniforms for Tehran's underground Westernized nightlife, with its bottle-service Grey Goose and designer drugs.

Circumstance, Maryam Keshavarz's Sundance hit, is the story of the affair these two girls fall into headlong, despite the "morality police," slut-shaming middle-aged women in black chadors (framed to emphasize their facelessness), and Atie's older brother, the only devout member of the family, whose crush on Shireen becomes steely zero-sum sexual jealousy as overheated as Billy Zane's in Titanic. (Keshavarz cuts to security-cam footage of the girls singing to each other or skipping across the sidewalks, the omnipresent paranoia foreshadowing absurd domestic-surveillance melodrama.)

Atie and Shireen have amazing lips and long black hair, which they shake during a giggling singalong to "Total Eclipse of the Heart"; with their friends, a raver and a Persian Harvard student, they dub Milk into Farsi (making gay jokes in a nicely nuanced bit of wary misdirection), and also Sex and the City, for "mainstream subversion," since, one says, in a society like Iran's, all transgression is subversive by default. Well, sure, let's not be snobs about samizdat, but Circumstance's rebellion is conspicuously privileged, to say nothing of photogenic. Atie and Shireen fantasize about running away to Dubai, grinding on each other in gold-lit niteclubs and shedding slinky dresses in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of a modernist beach hose, like the wealth-porn that adds a secondary fantasy to the actual porn of our more liberated society. Circumstance panders equally to high-minded and prurient wish fulfillment, essentially asking, "What kind of fucked up oppressive state would keep these two fine ladies from getting it on?"

Higher Ground, too, occasionally uses sexual dissatisfaction to shorthand a woman's uneasy place in a religious culture—lots of yuks when a depressed devout woman frownily sketches her husband's tiny dick, or when Pastor Bud plays an instructional tape for a roomful of squirming doughy bearded dudes ("Clitoral stimulation is part of God's plan"). But Vera Farmiga's uneven directorial debut is more often touchingly ambivalent, and its clean, pastoral visuals are shot through with her weird sense of humor and poetry.

Farmiga's lookalike 16-year-old sister Taissa grounds the skippily paced early scenes, playing serious-minded Corinne, eldest daughter of a fracturing family, whose rock musician boyfriend gets her pregnant (as he grunts on top of her in a field, she looks wonderingly off to the side at the enormous black pig snorting slowly towards her) and then born again. As parents, they settle into a cheerfully stifling church, and Corinne tries on attitudes for transcendence: as adult Corinne, Farmiga is sometimes virtuosic in her faith—posed all in white against a deep blue sky, fist raised like Loretta Lynn—and other times lost, spitting out her prayers quick and commonsensical.

This chronicle of a Christian housewife's spiritual search, adapted from Carolyn Briggs's memoir This Dark World, is missing an obvious ending—presumably Corinne starts writing it all down after the credits roll—and tends to overemphasize the drama of domestic discontent to obscure this fact. But the dialogue has an ear for the vanities and admissions coded within public prayer, and the soundtrack for Christian music at both its purest and most saccharine; the film is engaged, and not in some fuzzy I-definitely-consider-myself-a-spiritual-person way, with faith, which Corinne, quoting Hebrews, calls "the substance of things hoped for," and compassionate towards people who hope that faith will help them love others better.

Photos Courtesy Roadside Attractions, Sony Pictures Classics

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