Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Sundance ’20: Exam (short)

Kids should be able to be kids, but Sadaf never stood a chance. She feels pressure from both sides of the social spectrum: her severe Islamist school administrators and her loutish, drug dealing father. The last thing she needs from either of them is unnecessary stress on a test day, but that is what they give her in Sonia K. Hadad’s short film Exam, which won the Special Jury Award for Acting at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Sadaf’s father often uses her as a courier or his drug deals. It disgusts her, but she usually just acquiesces. This fateful morning, the old man has volunteers her services, without asking her first. Sadaf happens to have an important exam at school today and she is already running late. She is not happy about it, but she doesn’t have much choice. However, it is not the people making low-end drug transactions who represent a serious danger to Sadaf—it is the busybody moralizers who run her school.

Exam is a few seconds shy of 15 minutes, but it gets acutely tense, awfully quickly. It definitely follows in the tradition of Persian films that depict extreme moral dilemmas, so aptly demonstrated by the films of Asghar Farhadi and Massoud Bakhshi’s Yalda, a Night of Forgiveness, which also stars young Sadaf Asgari and screened at his year’s Sundance.

It is easy to get why the Jury singled out Asgari’s work in Exam, because her fierce performance takes her to some pretty extreme places that she fully commits to. This is a harrowing portrait of youth (perhaps lost) that is unlike anything you will see in a decade of CW programming. Ironically, it makes Asgari work as the young, wronged “temporary” wife in Yalda, even more poignant, because she looks so natural and convincing as a fourteen or fifteen-year-old here.

The premise of Exam could very well support a feature treatment, so it is impressive how efficiently Hadad boils it down to its dramatic essentials. This a bracing film that unflinchingly reflects the day-to-day challenges facing young women and the younger generation of students in contemporary Iran. Very highly recommended, Exam next screens this Friday (2/7) during the upcoming Final Girls Berlin Film Festival, after winning the Special Short Film Jury Award for Acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.