Beware the acclaimed foreign or independent film that’s celebrated for tackling a taboo or controversial subject—frequently, that turns out to be the only thing about it worth applauding. Iranian cinema, for example, barely even acknowledges the existence of human sexuality, so it’s easy for folks to be superficially wowed by Circumstance, which dares to depict a lesbian relationship between two hot young things (Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) who run afoul of their country’s oppressive theocracy. “Freedom is a right,” a closing title asserts, by which the film means, among other things, the right to engage in gauzy, impassioned hookups without being surreptitiously recorded by your glowering, obsessively religious brother (Reza Sixo Safai), who’s secretly as hot for your best friend as you are.
First-time writer-director Maryam Keshavarz deserves credit for political candor, but Circumstance rarely transcends the sort of clunky, ham-fisted sloganeering that was typical of now-forgotten American indies like The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. Its lead actresses look like fashion models (though Boosheri, as the couple’s more aggressive half, has some fine, flinty moments), and its tepid central romance, which exists only to be stymied, never remotely convinces. Only an amusing interlude in which the forbidden lovers help dub Iranian dialogue for Gus Van Sant’s Milk provides a momentary sense of wit or originality. One can be grateful that a movie like this exists without actually wanting to sit through it; hopefully, its bland courage will pave the way for greater achievements down the road.