Writer/director Noora Niasari is making her feature film debut at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival the thing. Drawing on personal experiences, she painted a deeply emotional picture of an Iranian woman’s perseverance and the deep bond she shares with her daughter. The end result is quietly impactful, finding strength in quiet moments that break away from the more formulaic elements of the story.
Shayda (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) is a young Iranian mother who lived in Australia in 1995 with her 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia). She fled to a women’s shelter and filed for divorce from her abusive husband Hossein (Osamah Sami). However, they face numerous challenges in their new home, as well as among familiar faces who condemn the mother for her decision to flee her husband.
During the two weeks of Iran’s New Year (Nowrooz), Shayda seeks a fresh start and a sense of normalcy for Mona. When Hossein manages to secure visitation rights, he reenters her life and worries the young mother that he may have plans to kidnap her daughter in order to bring her back to Iran for good.
Niasari deals with Shayda’s past, which stretches back many years before she immigrated to Australia. Looking at an old photo album brings tears to her eyes as she recalls all that has brought her to this point. However, she brazenly puts her daughter above everything and strives for a better and safer future. Hossein doesn’t plan on letting her get off that easy and tries to manipulate Shayda and Mona at every point.
Shayda is more than a resident of the women’s shelter, she is also a supporter of her fellow residents. Some tensions arise due to prejudice, but she always puts on her best behavior to set a good example for Mona. The Persian New Year serves as a symbol of the ongoing changes they face, but it’s not all darkness. Coming to life in moments with her daughter, the young mother frequently emphasizes the beauty and importance of dance as a means to shed personal demons and encourage self-expression.
However, the thing often finds her protagonist shrouded in fear and paranoia at the mere thought that her husband might be lurking somewhere. As a result, she cuts her hair and disguises herself to feel safe enough to go out in public without being able to rely on law enforcement or family for support. Much of Shayda’s community turned their backs on her, leaving her and Mona outcasts to the very people who should embrace them.
the thing is about the ongoing survival of a domestic violence survivor, but it is notable for tackling broader themes. Niasari explores the themes of letting go of pain and finding the strength to move forward. Not to forget, but not to allow pain and trauma to hold back happiness or progress. Moments of absolute terror interweave with joy and triumph, creating a clear narrative arc that doesn’t wallow in suffering.
Amir-Ebrahimi delivered an outstanding performance in 2022 Holy Spider, and she shatters all expectations once again. She plays Shayda with such care and precision while brilliantly handling the dramatic beats with a rawness that draws the viewer in. Amir-Ebrahimi and Zahednia develop a mother-daughter relationship on screen that is true.
Something needs to be said about the characters being heavily separated between “good” and “evil” and holding back depictions that could have more depth. However, the film’s messages about trauma, women’s rights and cultural conflicts are timely and meaningful. the thing is familiar storytelling, but Niasari’s feature debut finds the emotionally fulfilling beats paired with Amir-Ebrahimi’s particularly impressive performance.