TWIST Advance: APRICOT GROVES

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B+

Here is a unique story if ever there was one, weaving threads through Armenia, Iran, America, Christianity, Islam, and above all, gender identity.

One wonders how Apricot Groves would play to someone watching it cold, not having gotten the bit about gender identify from a synopsis or description. There is a moment at the end that feels like a reveal, the first time the main character specifically states "sex reassignment surgery." Anyone paying close attention should easily have figured it out by then, but writer-director Pouria Heidary Oureh is still pretty coy about it.

Narbe Vartan plays Aram, a young trans man who has not yet had his surgery, now returning to Armenia to propose to the girlfriend he met while living in America. The story takes place over roughly twenty-four hours, and after a brief sequence depicting his being taken into surgery prior to the opening credits, it begins with his brother, Vartan (Pedram Ansari) greeting Aram at the airport. Their first major order of business of the day is to visit Aram's girlfriend's family for a traditional "proposal," which comes with many expectant rituals that never quite happen.

But first: a haircut, and a fitting with a tailor. Until the haircut is actually half finished, the camera only follows Aram from behind, never quite revealing any kind of identify. Aram's face is finally revealed in the barber's mirror -- an incredibly soft face, but with stark black eyebrows. He asks for the hair to be cut even shorter, and once the cut is done, that paired with his face makes him quite easily convincing as a man.

Not a whole lot is ever revealed about Aram's and Vartan's family background -- only that Aram immigrated to the U.S. when young, Vartan did not, and right now as brothers they are evidently the only family they've got. Vartan did spend some time in the U.S., as I recall, and maybe that's what opened his mind. He is almost shockingly at ease with his brother, and his transition process. Here is depicted an incredibly loving sibling relationship.

Aram spends much of the story just staring around, as though in a daze. Presumably he is overwhelmed by how fast things are moving, between the official proposal to his girlfriend and a scheduled surgery in neighboring Iran (where, although homosexuality is punishable by death, sex reassignment surgery is actually subsidized by the government -- creating a rather unique society in which trans people are less oppressed than gay people, and gay people are often pressured into changing their gender). The girlfriend's family struggles as you might expect, but begrudgingly accepts Aram.

The girlfriend, by the way, is a bit of a jarring reminder of how differently performances can come across in foreign languages. It's not until Allison Gangi delivers a few of her lines in English when she and Aram have a brief private conversation that you realize how oddly flat she is. I couldn't decide if it was just her or if it was everybody, just less noticeable in a language I don't speak. Most of the time, the performances are totally convincing, Aram's persistently dazed look notwithstanding.

A side note on Narbe Vartan playing Aram. This is a film with very little information published about it online. I found Vartan's Facebook page (that's the real-life Vartan, mind you, as opposed to the character Aram's brother Vartan -- confusing), and he is clearly a man. Is he trans? One would never assume so. I found myself studying both Vartan and Pedram Ansari (as the brother, Vartan) closely while watching the film -- I could clearly see Ansari's Adam's apple, for instance, and could not see one on Vartan. This made me figure that Vartan was either a trans man playing a trans man, or a woman playing a trans man, but not a cisgendered man playing a trans man. Which is it? Does it matter? It would be tempting to say no, except for the longstanding sticking point regarding the desire for trans actors to play trans characters.

All that aside, the story stands well on its own. I was particularly touched by the brother Vartan's support of Aram in all things on this incredibly specific journey: meeting potentially hostile future in-laws on the way to surgery. For a story that only takes place over mostly one single day, the pacing takes its time a bit. You get to know these characters, though, mostly in the moment, and in spite of the specificity, it's easy to sympathize with them. This is the rare film that could broaden the horizons of virtually anyone who watches it.

  Pedram Ansari and Narbe Vartan are a uniquely tender pair of brothers in  Apricot Groves.

Pedram Ansari and Narbe Vartan are a uniquely tender pair of brothers in Apricot Groves.

Overall: B+