Clear-cut, allegorical and unsettling, Dressage might be viewed as an updated Crime and Punishment in which a 16-year-old girl commits a crime, gets away with it, but then finds she’s lost her moral bearings in the self-centered, materialistic world of her parents and friends. This first feature by Pooya Badkoobeh, who has made a career directing TV commercials, plunges deeply into the muddled, exasperating world of teenagers and never loses faith in its rebellious heroine, even when she goes off the rails and the audience’s favor wavers. It won a well-deserved special mention in Berlin’s Generation 14plus sidebar, but the moral quandary of this DreamLab release has adult appeal, too.
Expertly acted and lensed, Dressage has a quiet authority that goes beyond most first films. But it pushes the metaphoric side of its story too far at times, leaving its heroine abnormally detached from reality and puzzling to psyche out.
Its main asset, in any case, is luminous discovery Negar Moghaddam, who plays Golsa with the determination of Antigone. She’s never intimidated and never loses heart. You know she’s a rebel from the short butch haircut visible under her headscarf. But she’s also an inexperienced young girl who rejects the ways of an imperfect society and pays the price for her idealism.
In the fast-moving opener, Golsa joins a group of privileged rich kids who have just held up a grocery store in their small town outside Tehran. In the heady aftermath of the nighttime robbery, they suddenly realize they’ve forgotten to take the security camera footage, which will send them all to jail. The gang turns on Golsa with ill-disguised disdain for her lower-middle-class background and forces her to go back for it.
In a nicely tense recovery scene, she returns to the story solo and finds the clerk they knocked unconscious still lying on the floor with a bloody head wound. Not sure if he’s dead or alive, she slips the video player into her backpack.
All seems well until Amir (Yasna Mirtahmasb), the cowardly leader of the pack, demands she hand over the tape. Golsa says no. And she means it. Her stubborn refusal to put their minds at rest is never fully explained, though the humiliating slap Amir gives her probably has a lot to do with it.
It’s not like the robbery was a big secret: Amir’s arrogant father knows about it and tries to buy off the store owner, and Amir himself informs Golsa’s parents. The latter immediately take his side and, with shocking practicality, overlook the robbery to concentrate on the incriminating tape. Golsa’s father (Ali Mosaffa from Farhadi’s The Past) gives her a second slap in the face — for not turning over the recording. Incidentally, he tells her, Amir’s Dad can help them solve the family’s financial crisis if only she cooperates.
Golsa says nothing. She ignores their emotional blackmail, but on the other hand, she, too, is a blackmailer in the making through her control of the robbery tape. It’s clear she needs guidance, but there is no one to talk to. Like many teens, she has strained relations with her working dad and mom (Shabnam Moghadami), who are too busy trying to make money and move up in the world to pay attention to their daughter’s comings and goings or connect with her feelings.
Much of the action takes place at some expensive-looking riding stables, where Golsa finds a part-time job grooming the horses. There she also finds the kindness of a poor young stable hand (Baset Rezaei), the only person who recognizes how special she is and — maybe because they’re the same age — sympathizes with her passive rebellion. Sadly, her pure feelings for a show horse being prepped for dressage are used against her when it, too, becomes a pawn in the game of nerves between her and society.
The class divide that plays a major role in contemporary Iranian films is foregrounded here. Not only is Golsa’s family lower on the social ladder than her horseback riding friends, but there are exploited people even farther down, like the Afghan clerk (Lotfollah Seifi) who sleeps in the store for lack of money. Golsa’s naïve attempts to right social wrongs only make matters worse.
The camerawork emphasizes the girl’s restlessness inside her home (decorated with fragile glass knickknacks) and her sense of freedom running down the street (where the cops pick her up, for running, in a nicely symbolic moment). The fine lighting is by lenser Ashkan Ashkani, who leapt to the forefront in progressive New Wave films like Dormishian’s Lantouri and Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity. Shahab Paranj’s delicate score lends unobtrusive feeling to the scenes.