This time of year, I watch a lot of movies at once and sometimes it seems that two of them are on the same wavelength, despite being very different stories. I watched Shayda and Priscilla a few days apart. One of them is a pretty big Hollywood flick from Sofia Copolla, the other, a small indie film from Iranian-born first-time feature filmmaker Noora Niasari. But both are about women who get away from abusive relationships. Both are from female directors. Both focus on the woman and her ultimate empowerment.
In the case of Priscilla, it’s Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (Cailee Spaeny, “Mayor of Easttown”). The film is an adaptation of her memoir “Elvis and Me” and follows her from 1959 at the age of 14 when she first met Elvis Presley (Jacob Elordi, Saltburn, “Euphoria”) in Germany until she left him in 1973. Any teenager at that time would have had a hard time not becoming infatuated with him. That he talked her parents into letting her live with him while she finished school in Memphis speaks to the power of his fame. (I found this more than a bit creepy.) But despite living the 60s teen dream being Elvis’s girl, she soon feels cut off from the normal world, friendships, teenage life. It only gets worse as time goes on. He tells her how to do her hair. What to wear. Even what to read. Controlling doesn’t really cover it. She’s his object and she goes along with it. But only for so long.
Priscilla’s a sweet, wide-eyed innocent as the film starts. And being invited to meet Elvis and moving in with him is beyond her wildest dreams. But little by little, the veneer cracks. Sure he’s sexy and famous and he showers her with gifts and compliments (when she acts the way he wants.) But he also has a temper that flares up from time to time. And he’s often off touring or starring in movies with women who are romantically linked to him in the papers. And when he is home, he’s usually hanging out with his entourage. There is very little joy in Priscilla’s life. Even once she becomes a mother. You do keep wondering when she will have had enough.
Spaeny does her best to convey Priscilla’s reactions to the life she’s been sold into, but ultimately the film has too little in the way of substance. Like Coppola’s earlier film Marie Antoinette, the lesson seems to be, “Watch out what you ask for.” I see Priscilla gaining a bit of awards season love for hair and makeup and production design, and possibly Spaeny’s performance. But storywise, I wish Coppola had found a way to let Priscilla speak for herself rather than passively reacting to The King, because this Priscilla is kind of a bore.
In contrast, Shayda (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Holy Spider) is the mother of an adorable little girl Mona (Selina Zahedenia). It’s 1995, and they’re Iranians living in Australia where her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) brought them so he could to go to university. But she and Mona are not home with him. They are in a women’s shelter hiding from him. She’s trying her best to take care of her daughter, make life fun for her, and move forward to a less restrictive life than she’s been allowed to live with her very traditional and abusive husband. She is also terrified that he will find them. The Iranian community in the town she’s in is small and there is always the possibility that someone will tell him where they are.
She’s filed for divorce but when the courts demand that she let Hossein see Mona, Shayda is petrified that he will snatch her and take her back to Iran. The opening of the film is her taking Mona to the airport and showing her how to escape if that should happen. The scenes when she has to drop Mona off for her unsupervised visits with him are as tension-filled as can be. Initially he tries to talk her into coming back, claiming to have learned his lesson. Even her mother thinks she should give him another chance. But Shayda is moving towards a better life for herself and her daughter. And that makes Hossein angry. She has a new male friend Farhad (Mojean Aria) and that makes him even angrier. And his violence boils to the surface. At one point he calls her a whore and tells her that if she were in Iran, she’d be killed for acting as she is.
Shayda is a a quietly powerful film thanks to a masterful performance by Ebrahimi, at once strong and terrified. The story is simple, but doesn’t fall into cliches, and the shooting is intimate. It is Australia’s official entry for Best International Feature Film at next year’s Oscars. I hope it gets the love it deserves. (Doesn’t hurt that Cate Blanchett is one of the Executive Producers.)
Both films have had limited theatrical runs and should be on streaming services soon.