A woman fighting for a better life patiently struggles with a six year-old daughter who doesn’t understand why her father is gone, misses her grandmother and does not like her new home, a women’s shelter in an Australian suburb of Melbourne.  It is 1995, and the woman in the midst of obtaining a divorce and fighting for custody of Mona (Selina Zahednia) is trying to keep their spirits up by observing the rituals of Persian New Year, Nowruz.  But when a court grants Hossein (Osamah Sami) temporary access to Mona, life becomes even more difficult for “Shayda.”

Laura's Review: B

With her feature directorial debut telling a fictionalized version of her and her mother's own story, writer/director Noora Niasari won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition Audience Award at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and her film was chosen as Australia’s entry for the 2024 International Oscar.  "Holy Spider's" Zar Amir Ebrahimi gives a performance that is alternately anxiety-ridden and joyful while also giving us the Iranian woman’s point of view missing from 1991’s “Not Without My Daughter,” a similar story told from the perspective of an American woman married to an Iranian.

A photo album Shayda leafs through tells us that she was married a mere year after high school, she and her husband traveling to Australia for college, although we will subsequently learn that her home country rescinded Shayda’s scholarship.  Now she is living with strangers, albeit in a home managed by the protective and helpful Joyce (Leah Purcell, "Lantana”), with no means of support and a young daughter having nightmares and wetting the bed.  The news of Hossein reentering their lives has made Shayda so anxious, she cuts her hair and dons glasses and a hat to visit a local ethnic grocery, alarmed when the cashier recognizes her anyway.  She is so paranoid, she’s reluctant to tell her Iranian friend, Elly (Rina Mousavi), any details of her current situation, knowing that Hossein is in touch with her.

Shayda makes room for joy, though, preparing sprouts in a windowsill to grow, part of the New Year ritual along with the goldfish representing new life that she buys for Mona.  And there is dancing, at first just mother teaching daughter, then at a disco, lured out by fellow shelter mom Vi (Jillian Nguyen).  Elly’s there and introduces Shayda to her Iranian cousin from Canada, Farhad (Mojean Aria), the duo dancing the night away.  We can already see trouble on the horizon…

There have been films about abused women in custody battles before, not only the aforementioned Sally Field film but Xavier Legrand’s 2017 “Custody,” based on his chilling Oscar nominated 2013 short, “Just Before Losing Everything.”  What differentiates Niasari’s film is its personal nature, mother and daughter sharing their Iranian culture in the thirteen days leading up to the actual New Year celebration.  There is also life in a shelter, Shayda encountering problems with two Australian residents while offered friendship from Vi.  Shayda is also supportive of new English resident Lara (Eve Morey) whose little boy Tobias (Luka Sero) is finally located by police after over two years for a joyous reunion only to be kidnapped again.

But while we can feel tension building, it is because her climax is so inevitable.  Furthermore, it is disappointing to see Hossein portrayed by a dark, hirsute actor while ‘good guy’ Farhad is fair-haired and blue-eyed.  And after all Shayda endures, Niasari appears to cut off her Iranian lifelines.  “Shayda” does, however, end with a new twist on that temporary access to Mona, one which may be as satisfying for mother as it is disturbing for daughter.

Robin's Review: B+

A young Iranian woman arrives in Australia. She is fleeing from her homeland and her abusive, fundamentalist Muslim husband and arrives in her new country with her 6-year old daughter, Mona. Finding safety in a women’s shelter, she settles in for a new life, but her past, and her husband, will haunt “Shayda.”

Men suck. Being a guy, I am entitled to that opinion as a bona fide white Anglo-Saxon male and writer-director Noora Niasati makes that point, markedly, in her first feature-length fiction film.
We meet Shayda (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) as she and little Mona (Selina) arrive in Australia on the eve of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. From that moment, we know that the mother and daughter are escaping something. It soon becomes obvious that they are fleeing from her abusive and brutal husband, Hossein (Osamah Sami).

They find a women’s shelter where they can feel safe and Shayda and Mona begin to start a new life. That safety is upset when Hossein arrives and demands visitation rights with Mona – unsupervised. Reluctantly, the mom lets her go, but always with the fear that her estranged husband will take the girl away to Iran,

This begins a tug of war with Mona in the middle and Shayda struggling to divorce her husband and live in peace with Mona – without Hossein and NOT in Iran. Zar Amir Ebrahimi stands out in her anchored role as a woman trying to change her life for the better for herself and her daughter.

The story, based on the director’s mother and her own childhood, really puts forth what I said in the beginning – men suck. I have, for decades, believed that men have had 4000 years in charge of the world and screwed it up entirely. The greed and need for power that epitomizes men would be better if replaced by the gentleness, intelligence and compassion of women. I can guarantee they would do a far better job and we would not be in danger of extinction.

After qualifying "Shayda" for awards in 2023, Sony Pictures Classics releases the movie in select theaters on 3/1/24, expanding in subsequent weeks.