'My Second Year in College' ('Sal-e Dovvom-e Danehkadeh-ye Man'): Film Review

Courtesy of Irimage
A subtle, up-close look at two Iranian college girls.

A poor girl aspires to her best friend’s life in a psychological drama by Rasoul Sadrameli ('I’m Taraneh, 15').

Another closely observed, sympathetic portrait of a young woman navigating her own way through Iranian society, My Second Year in College (Sal-e Dovvom-e Danehkadeh-ye Man) is full of nuances and almost embarrassingly intimate glimpses into the hopes and fantasies of an inexperienced girl. The title has the first-person directness of I’m Taraneh, 15, the 2007 film that brought director Rasoul Sadrameli to international attention.

Subtle shooting and a well-chosen cast that includes Ali Mosaffa are big pluses, even if the main story about a girl in a coma (will she or won’t she wake up?) recalls a medical TV show. Balanced between a penetrating psychological portrait of pretty Mahtab (Soha Niasti) and some rather unfocused reflections on social privilege and its lack, Parviz Shahbazi’s screenplay is best at revealing painful truths that seem to escape the characters themselves, in the finest Iranian tradition. It should be a strong festival contender for the new Iran-based world sales agency Irimage.

Mahtab’s cheerful personality at college makes her instantly sympathetic, if one overlooks her tense, intolerant exchanges with her mother and younger sister at home as casual realism. She hangs out with her moody best friend Ava (Fereshteh Arastouie), who is clearly from a much wealthier family. Ava generously pays her fee so they can go on a school excursion to Isfahan together. But typically, she’s late and almost misses the bus while Mahtab anxiously saves her a seat.

Ava, who is the possessive type, has quarreled with her boyfriend Ali again: “He thinks he owns me.” This is supposedly why she has been popping antidepressants and painkillers freely, much to Mahtab’s disapproval. But as we learn, it’s more a matter of the shoe being on the other foot: it’s Ava who is insanely jealous. This is relevant to the subsequent drama, which begins after she passes out on the floor of their hotel room and fails to regain consciousness. Mahtab uses the girl's phone to contact Ava’s secret flame Ali (Pedram Sharifi) and, under the guise of being Mahtub’s cousin, he comes running to Isfahan to see her in the hospital. Later, after Ava is transferred back to her home in Tehran, he sees quite a bit of Mahtab, and with Ava showing no signs of recovery, Mahtab begins to entertain fantasies about her tall, handsome, wealthy suitor.

Losing her head, she gets in trouble with the authorities, notably the college disciplinary committee, which flexes its authoritarian muscle when she disobeys teachers’ orders and stays with Ava an extra day in Isfahan. Her daring is very much on display when she returns to Tehran with Ali, alone, in his big new SUV. It's as though she feels protected from any bad consequences by his money. She also has a less admirable, devious streak that involves lying every time it will help her.

The situation is richly mined for irony. Ava, once so whimsical and dominant, is now helpless, while Mahtab, feeling a little guilty but also flying high with excitement, confesses in her ear that she’s “falling in love” with Ali. But she hasn’t reckoned with the strong class structure that glues Ali and Ava together along with her father (Mosaffa) and well-to-do clan. Although the young couple has been seeing each other in secret, Dad has little trouble putting two and two together and approving of the match.

The ambiguity of the final scenes is coy and unnecessary, leaving the audience hanging with uncertainty that contributes nothing and irritates quite a bit.

It’s unusual to see Iranian college women onscreen, and it is one of the film’s talking points. They get extra credits for taking courses like “Life Skills” (glossed by Mahtab as learning how to take care of your husband), but disappointingly, there is no mention of their actual studies, which seem to be architecture or maybe interior design. No academic chit-chat or poetry discussions for these girls who both, in the end, seem to be dreaming of finding a rich husband.  

Cast: Soha Niasti, Fereshteh Arastouie, Ali Mosaffa, Pedram Sharifi, Babak Hamidian, Vishka Asayesh, Shaghayegh Farahani
Director: Rasoul Sadrameli
Screenwriter: Parviz Shahbazi
Producer: Masood Radaei
Director of photography: Hooman Behmanesh
Production designer-costume designer: Atoosa Ghalamfarsaie
Editor: Mostafa Kherghehpoosh
Music: Christophe Rezai
Venue: EFM
World sales: Irimage

99 minutes