'Radio Dreams': Rotterdam Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
A culture-clash charmer.

Writer-director Babak Jalali's California-set second feature world premiered in competition at the Dutch festival.

Contrasting wavelengths of humor and seriousness come through with impressive clarity in director/co-writer Babak Jalali's sophomore outing Radio Dreams. An instant front-runner for Rotterdam's revamped Tiger Award after world-premiering at the Dutch festival, this blandly titled but affectingly bittersweet U.S.-Iran co-production traces one hectic day at a Farsi-language station in San Francisco. Presenting a nuanced, intelligent and consistently droll take on hot-button subjects of immigration, identity and cultural assimilation, it looks set for a very healthy festival life even if missing out on Rotterdam's $43,500 top prize and with proper handling could reward art house distribution in numerous territories. 

And while the final-reel presence of Metallica's Lars Ulrich — gamely playing himself on a visit to the station's studio — provides obvious marketing opportunities, the real star of the show is Mohsen Namjoo, a veteran singer-songwriter sometimes dubbed the "Bob Dylan of Iran" who is here making only his second feature-film appearance. The superb Namjoo, with his spectacularly distinctive shock of frizzy, greying hair, is a deadpan delight as Hamid Royani, the long-serving, long-suffering director of programming at Pars Radio, the Bay Area's No. 1 Farsi-language broadcaster. A cultured, erudite, soft-spoken gentleman who enjoyed considerable esteem as a writer before immigrating to the U.S., Royani seeks to maintain and elevate Pars' reputation as a purveyor of high-class audio material: poems, short stories, folk music from Iran and its neighbors.

He struggles, however, against the commercial realities and imperatives of what's evidently a shoestring operation, run with smooth efficiency by the glamorous Maral (Boshra Dastournezhad), daughter of the station's easygoing, wrestling-obsessed owner. Royani frequently despairs as some delicate, subtle broadcast is followed — or even interrupted — by a garish advertising jingle, as when the station's middle-aged factotum Sherbet (Bella Warda) delivers a hushed memoir of her mother and her own adaptation to life in a "narrow city." Despite these hurdles, Pars is evidently capable of attracting high-profile guests, such as (real-life) Afghan rock trio Kabul Dreams, whose arrival in California and haphazard adaptation to American life are captured in a series of nicely sketched vignettes. A jam session has been arranged between Kabul Dreams and Metallica, and the arrival of the heavy-metal legends is keenly anticipated — and repeatedly delayed.

It's no real spoiler to reveal that Ulrich does eventually show up — the drummer's Danish nationality a subtle reminder of America's long tradition of welcoming newcomers from overseas. Jalali himself is impeccably international-minded: the Iran-born, U.K.-based writer-director is currently in preparation on his third feature, Land, about a Lakota Sioux family in North Dakota. Radio Dreams reportedly came about because of pre-production delays on Land, but this low-key, intermittently hilarious charmer looks sure to significantly increase Jalali's profile some seven years after his slow-burning, award-winning debut Frontier Blues, set on the Iran-Turkmenistan border. 

Jalali's other notable credit is as co-producer on Noaz Deshe's incendiary debut White Shadow (2013) — the multi-talented Israeli provided the score for Frontier Blues, and here proves that his terrifically atmospheric cinematography on White Shadow was no fluke. Radio Dreams is visually striking throughout, Deshe's palette favoring grays and shale blues and working quiet wonders — stylized but documentary-like — with the studio's neon strip-lighting. It's a distinctive framework for a screenplay which pays generous attention to each of the characters in an irresistibly offbeat ensemble, with Jalali and his co-writer Aida Ahadiany crafting quirky but believable situations, developments and dialogue.

Warm-hearted but tough-edged in a way that eschews any possibility of schmaltz, Radio Dreams is also wonderfully cast from to bottom (bison-like big-screen newcomer Kyle Kernan makes every second count in his fleeting appearance as a commandingly assertive wrestling coach). The results stand comparison with the finest radio-themed enterprises of the current century — Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, Bruce McDonald's Pontypool, Declan Lowney's Alan Partridge —  and for older viewers may even stir welcome memories of Emmy-winning small-screen classic WKRP in Cincinatti. And some enterprising TV producer could do much worse than arrange for further glimpses into Pars radio's chaotic, cozy confines.

Production company: Butimar
Cast: Mohsen Namjoo, Boshra Dastournezhad, Raby Adib, Sulyman Qardash, Siddique Ahmed
Director: Babak Jalali
Screenwriters: Babak Jalali, Aida Ahadiany
Producer: Marjaneh Moghimi
Executive producer: Neda Nobari
Cinematographer: Noaz Deshe
Production designer: Laura Lahti
Editors: Nico Leunen, Babak Salek
Composer: Mahmoud Schricker
Sales/Distributor: Reel Suspects

Not rated, 94 minutes