Zahra is riding in the backseat of a car with her mother Leila and her mother’s boyfriend Peter, on their way to see a local waterfall. To amuse herself, she’s making a video with her camera, when she’s not listening to music on her headphones.
Zahra is a typical teen in many ways: sullen and silent one minute, soft and vulnerable the next. With her mother’s boyfriend, she’s guarded and wary, even when he attempts to engage her in conversation. Yet he seems resentful of Zahra at times, especially when she and her mom persist in speaking in Farsi, their native Iranian language.
But when the road trip takes a rocky turn, the small fissures deepen, even as Zahra’s mother makes a direct appeal to her daughter. When Zahra proves intractable in the face of Peter’s subtle yet unmistakable hostility, she may just find herself being left behind.
Beautifully understated, intimate and with the observational power of a documentary, this poetic short drama — directed by Nora Niasari and produced by Mary Minas — captures a crystalline yet brittle moment in one teenage girl’s as she navigates a tricky dynamic between her mother, herself and her mother’s new partner.
It is a film of tiny moments, all of which are beautifully recorded with a poetic eye and ear for beauty and lyricism. Leaves in a hand, rain beading on a car window, the way a hand lands on a thigh: these are all details of a young girl lost in her own world. Part of that is self-exile, since it’s clear that Zahra doesn’t get along with Peter. But part of that is the isolation of feeling unwanted or like a burden, as the elegantly pared-down dialogue often reveals Peter’s simmering annoyance with Zahra, often expressed in passive-aggressive ways.
The push-pull dynamic between the trio of characters is subtly constructed and beautifully observed, brought to life by precise, understated performances by the entire cast. Young performer Asal Shenaveh as Zahra captures the flickers of sadness and resentment that she oscillates between, and her connection to her mother, played by Gity Madani, is both fractious and palpable, especially as Leila navigates her divided loyalties. Those divisions quietly yet undeniably widen, leaving Zahra alone, even when in the company of her new family configuration.
Crafted with grace and delicacy and clear-eyed in its compassion, “Waterfall” is about difficult transitions, as families disintegrate and new ones seem to come together reluctantly. What’s tricky is that Zahra is in a transition of her own as a teen. She is carving out a new identity and increasing independence developmentally.
But sometimes that independence is prematurely assumed, and Zahra is left to fend for herself at a time when she still may need reassurance or connection during this tough transition, especially as Leila is trying her best to balance her two loves. The gift of “Waterfall” is how deeply it engages in all three characters’ perspectives in this difficult situation, and how insightful it is about how we can still feel like children — no matter how grown we become — in our yearnings for love, acceptance and belonging.