Shayda is a movie that makes you forget about performances, screenplays, direction, and cinematography. Obviously, it incorporates all those elements, yet it plays as though you’ve opened a magic portal and are peeking into somebody else’s life. Only when the end credits start to roll do you fully recognize what an incredible piece of filmmaking it is. Writer/director Noora Niasari is telling her own mother’s tale in this semi-autobiographical work. Her low-key, intimate approach infuses it with soul.

Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) is an Iranian immigrant living in Australia. Having escaped the husband who sexually assaulted her, she now resides in a women’s shelter, along with her 6-year-old daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia). They have hot-and-cold interactions with the shelter’s other residents. When the courts grant Mona’s father Hossein (Osamah Sami) visitation, he has an opening to re-enter their lives, and it’s clear that he expects Shayda to resume being his dutiful wife, as custom requires. Going back to him, however, is unthinkable.

That’s the set-up. From there, the story deals with the many pressures its heroine faces, from trying to put on a positive face for Mona, to her traditional mother imploring her to return to the marriage, to constantly worrying that Hossein will whisk Mona away to Iran. The movie’s opening scene finds Shayda and a social worker taking the girl to the airport so they can point out security. They tell her to run to one of the officers if her father ever brings her there. Shayda is filled with those sorts of details, painting a picture of how hard divorce is, but more specifically of how hard divorce becomes when you originate from a culture where women are supposed to be obedient to men, even when the men are abusive.

Niasari takes a quiet, observational approach to telling the story. She finds heartbreak in little nuances, like Hossein repeatedly breaking his promise to take Mona to see The Lion King. Her camera is unobtrusive, never calling attention to its presence with slick shots or unnecessary movement. The square aspect ratio forces us to focus on the faces of the characters, so as not to become distracted by locations or backgrounds. Even a subplot that seems boilerplate on the surface – Shayda attracting the attention of a potential new suitor – manages to avoid cliché by zeroing in on her lack of readiness to even consider dating again. Niasari wants us to pay attention as her central character works to achieve stability, for her own sake as much as for her daughter’s.

Zar Amir Ebrahimi is truly incredible in the title role. Again, we don’t see “performance,” we see authenticity. Through looks, body language, and subtle expressions of discomfort, the actress brings to life the notion that Shayda has the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her scenes with young Selina Zahednia especially ring true. A lot of extremely young child actors are too cutesy. Not here. Zahednia is charming in a real-world kind of way, while still getting it across that Mona struggles to make sense of the adult problems she’s stuck in the middle of. The mother/daughter bond is at the heart of the plot, allowing for a theme about what we want to model for our children.

Like Kramer vs. Kramer and Marriage Story, Shayda delves into the everyday pains of a union that’s ending. The cultural component affords the film a unique angle. Being true to herself means risking her standing in the society she’s known her whole life. The bravery she shows will leave you deeply moved.

out of four

Shayda is rated PG-13 for thematic material involving domestic abuse, some violence, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.

© 2024 Mike McGranaghan