Roger Ebert wrote in November 2000 from the Hawaii Film Festival:
It must not have been easy to be an Iranian-American teenager in 1979, going to high school while your neighbors were tying yellow ribbons 'round their old oak trees. Especially since some of your neighbors were too dim to figure out that the Iranians in America were mostly pro-Shah and not supporters of the hostage-takers. "Iranians go home," the mobs shouted, waving their flags while contradicting the American idea.
"Maryam," an extraordinary film I saw at the 2000 Hawaii International Film Festival, tells the story of an Iranian-American family in New Jersey, balanced precariously between the values of their former land and their new one.
It's seen mostly through the eyes of their 16-year-old daughter, Maryam (Mariam Parris), (cq mariam) who likes to be called Mary. She's a good student, wise and centered, with a good sense of humor, which she needs. Her father (Shaun Toub) is a local doctor; her mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is a housewife. It is a convention in movies about immigrant families to show the parents as strict, forbidding monsters, but actually Mary's parents are reasonable and loving, even if her dad has firm rules against serious dating, lipstick, stuff like that.
A cousin named Ali (David Ackert) arrives from Iran to study physics at the local university. Within the last year, he has become an observant Muslim and an admirer of the Alitoyah Kolmeni. Mary's parents are not so religious, and prospered under the Shah. Ali moves into a spare bedroom, bringing the tensions of Iran to New Jersey just at the time when hostages are taken at the American embassy and anti-Iran sentiment in the U.S. becomes a fever. Fictional scenes are underlined by TV news footage from the time.
The movie could have been a shrill political statement, but is not. The writer-director, Ramin Serry, wants to observe, to empathize. Mary has a shy romance with a boyfriend. She's active as a newscaster on the school's closed-circuit TV station. The blonde bimbos who hang out in the rest room, smoking, make crude remarks about her Iranian background, which she deflects with intelligence and irony. But then the Shah flies to New York seeking treatment for his cancer, and Ali is seized with revolutionary fervor.
I left the theater admiring the movie not only for its ideas (it urges us to see people, not labels) but also by its artistry: In a time when most movie teenagers are bubble-headed pawns in sex comedies, here is a teenager with brains and courage, who doesn't simply rebel against her parents but wants to understand them, and who doesn't collapse into weeping victimhood but depends on her mind and values. "Maryam" is powerful, important and very moving.