MIFF review: Dressage

Taut moral drama rides in the grey spaces of crime and punishment. Negar Moghaddam is magnificent.

What price justice? That’s the dilemma at the heart of Iranian director Pooya Badkoobeh’s razor sharp and smartly class-conscious debut feature Dressage.

Hung on a magnetic Negar Moghaddam in her breakthrough role, she plays 16-year-old Golsa, plodding through a humdrum life in Tehran’s outer suburbs, reined in by overbearing yet uninterested parents (Shabnam Moghaddami, Ali Mosaffa) who are more focused on climbing the property ladder. Earphones always in and constantly fiddling with her phone, she’s a typical if somewhat introverted teenager who finds solace by the sturdy side of one of MIFF’s finest horses. Helping out, unpaid, in a local stable the steed is, in many ways, her closet friend, her place of calm and purpose. It’s here, too, that a possible human bond forms with stable worker Milad (Baset Rezaei).

Beyond these muck-raking walls and the claustrophobic ones of her parent’s apartment, Golsa is the odd one out in a trouble-making gang of bratty rich kids with which she hangs and is something of a whipping girl. Led by daddy’s boy and bloated ego bully Amir (Yasna Mirtahmasb), these spoiled upstarts decide to rob a local convenience store, leaving himself cashier Norooz (Lotfollah Seifi), himself a victim of bigotry, unconscious and bleeding on the cold stone floor.

Realising that they’ve been caught red handed on the security cam, it’s Golsa who is strong armed into retrieving the video, but rather than hand it over to the, she instead hides the evidence at the stables, much to Amir’s increasingly aggressive and whiny chagrin.

Penned by A Minor Leap Down writer/director Hamed Rajabi, this is no heavy-handed moral fable. In her surly, inward-focused brooding, Golsa is far from perfect. An intriguing battle of the wills – will she turn them in, damning herself, or will she hold them all, including her inattentive  and manipulative parents, in limbo? – she returns to the scene of the crime, insinuating herself in Norooz’ life.

This taut tale plays out in shades of grey, with the audience constantly second guessing what Golsa will do next, and where her impassioned deliberation as judge, jury and possible imprisoner will lead us, with the sanctuary of the stable and her equine companions increasingly threatened.

Delivering an aching thrill hazily caught by cinematographer Ashkan Ashkani, Dressage was nominated for Best First Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival and commended in the Generation 14plus sidebar. Sitting astride a fine tradition of Iranian moral dramas, it’s infused with feminist fire and teen spirit, marking both Moghaddam and Badkoobeh as ones to watch.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords