‘Leila’s Brothers’ Review: A Beautiful Drama About Family Ties [Cannes]

This year’s dark horse in competition at Cannes is easily “Leila’s Brothers,” Iranian writer-director Saeed Roustaee’s third feature and worthy follow-up to his intense 2019 cop thriller “Just 6.5.” With hints of “The Godfather” and Arthur Miller evident throughout, the drama is a sprawling tale exploring dysfunctional family dynamics, economic hardships, and generational wealth. 

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“Leila’s Brothers” follows the lives of a Tehran family as they struggle to stay afloat amidst financial hardships and complicated familial relationships. Played by Taraneh Alisoosti, there’s the title sister who, at 40, is unmarried, still living with her parents, and the only one with a stable job and income, thus single-handedly providing for her entire family. Her four brothers include Alireza (Navid Mohammadzadeh), who hasn’t visited home in eight years but returns after leaving his factory job due to unpaid wages; Manouchehr (Payman Maadi), who is in debt and heavily involved in a pyramid scheme involving cars; there’s Farhad (Mohammad Ali Mohammadi), a U.S. wrestling fan who works odd jobs; and finally, the oldest sibling in the clan is Parviz (Farhad Aslani), an overweight luxury mall bathroom attendant and father of six. At the head of their family is their selfish, aging father, 80-year-old Esmail (Saeed Poursamimi), who wants nothing more than to be respected by his family and peers. 

When an extended family member’s patriarch passes away, a successor must be named and Esmail fights to earn the high honor despite being disliked by much of the clan, even if it comes with the price of tearing down his family as a result. The son of the dead cousin, Bayram (Mehdi Hosseinina), tells him he will be chosen as the next patriarch if he gifts 40 gold coins at Bayram’s son’s wedding, and Esmail goes to great lengths to do so using his savings even though the future of his children hinges on the coins as well. Meanwhile, Leila, tired of holding down the fort and dealing with the men in her family not putting in the effort to make something of themselves, convinces her brothers to come together and start a local business at the mall in order to secure a future that is based on stability rather than one that is plagued by constant struggle. 

A strong, character-driven film, every single member of the ensemble is fantastic, making each fleshed out character distinctly their own while still feeling like a genuine family. Much like Leila is the backbone for her family, Alidoosti — who is best known for her work with Asghar Farhadi — serves as the film’s anchor, even if there isn’t a clear protagonist. The family may constantly bicker and feel resentment towards each other for their failures and missteps, but they love each other too much at the end of the day to let their trials and tribulations loom over that feeling. Roustaee tackles social issues head-on, from sexism and the patriarchy to class and workers’ rights in its stunning opening moments.

Dreaming has a large presence throughout “Leila’s Brothers,” with Leila wishing that her brothers will finally be able to branch out and open a successful shop that will solve all their problems, and the brothers all fantasize about some grand overnight success that brings them wealth. Anyone who hasn’t had money at some point in their life understands the feeling of imagining what success and stability would feel like but not being able to maintain it. As the Iranian economy crashes as a result of Trump-era U.S. sanctions, the brothers are unable to get their gold coins back and fall deeper into turmoil, with the movie concluding with the family struggling once again. 

The true star of “Leila’s Brothers” is the rich screenplay brimming with humanity, depth, and humor that makes for a genuinely emotional portrait of an imperfect family, even if it walks the fine line of being a typical melodrama. Despite its nearly three-hour runtime, it never overstays its welcome and plays out beautifully, maintaining a gripping tone and complex narrative about an ordinary family that doesn’t fall into cliches or repetition. Roustaee’s filmmaking is subtle yet leaves a lasting impression, solidifying him as one to watch.  [A]

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