Director Asghar Farhadi is a master at narrative pacing.
Director Asghar Farhadi is a master at narrative pacing.

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In 2012, I described Asghar Farhadi’s Iranian Oscar-winner A Separation as “two hours of stress with an Inception-like ending.” That opening line apparently cast a pall on the rest of the review for some of the film’s fans, who lashed out at my cluelessness while failing to note my high praise for the cast and Farhadi’s masterfully paced writing and directing, an alchemy that transformed constant tension into “incredibly compelling stuff.”

So this time I’ll be more clear: About Elly is a terrific movie.

Elly is just now getting a stateside release, despite predating A Separation, and it solidifies Farhadi as a filmmaker not only to watch but to seek out. Along with his American breakout and its follow-up, The Past, this 2009 film forms a trilogy that observes human behavior—particularly romantic relationships—under stress with deft psychological precision. You’d think such unhurried portrayals of crises would turn tiresome; instead, Farhadi knows just how much to hold back to keep you drawn in.

It’s no surprise, then, that the less you know about About Elly, the more it will grip you. Many Western audiences may find its portrayal of Iranians eye-opening from the first scene, which shows young women in hijabs whooping as they lean out car windows on their way from Tehran to a seaside vacation with friends and family. Though one of the drivers, Amir (Mani Haghighi), directs a passing scolding at his wife, Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), about acting wild, this group cares more about fun than traditional gender roles.

It’s not obvious from the beginning that these two are together; for one, the film feels a bit crowded at first, and it takes a while before Farhadi gives the characters room to become individuals whose names and relationships you remember. (It helps that all the actors have a presence the camera loves.) But Amir also seems much older than Sepideh—and most of the others, really—as well as the sensible, nearly paternal figure of the bunch.

That dynamic, though, becomes integral to the storyline, which centers on Sepideh inviting her daughter’s schoolteacher, Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti), at the last minute without telling anyone. Sepideh, with the recently divorced Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) in mind, is rather aggressively playing matchmaker, despite shy Elly’s resistance. Also, she’s the only one besides her daughter who knows Elly, and the group’s welcome act, albeit sincere, comes with a significant side of loud and inconsiderate joking about the potential couple whenever Elly’s back is turned.

As Elly grows more uncomfortable, Sepideh grows more childish. Though Elly had told her that she could only stay for a night, Sepideh won’t let her leave, refusing to give her a ride to the bus depot. By this point, the playful and seemingly well-intentioned woman has grown irritating, as she turns out to be the kind of impulsive dope who knew a cabin wouldn’t be available for their entire stay yet figures things will work out instead of telling the rest. When a mysterious accident occurs, Sepideh’s omissions and lies mount.

About Elly was Iran’s official submission for 2009 Academy Award consideration, and it’s difficult to understand why it was Force Majeure’d. Farhadi’s script metes out details at just the right times and leaves other areas open to endless interpretation, and his direction is frequently artful and magnetic: In one scene, Elly grows giddy as she helps her student fly a kite, yet you see neither the kite nor the girl, just Elly’s face as she laughs and runs in shots that look nearly continuous but are actually cut. It’s a subtly chilling cue—something’s about to go wrong. But only in the narrative. As a film, About Elly is exactly right.

Few characters who interact with Kristen Wiig’s Alice Klieg in Welcome to Me bother to hide their eye rolls—and even Wiig’s most ardent fans may find it contagious. Adding another mentally ill, broken, and awkward role to her increasingly familiar filmography, Wiig isn’t by any means bad in Shira Piven’s comedy/drama/none of the above. She’s just boring.

It’s inarguable that Wiig has enjoyed more success on the big screen than most Saturday Night Live alumni, at least among critics. (Bridesmaids was a notable exception, a box-office smash.) But after the likes of Paul, Hateship Loveship, and The Skeleton Twins, it seems as if she’s determined to stick to roles that are cringe-inducing-funny rather than funny-funny. And you can often drop “funny” from the former.

In Welcome to Me, Alice is divorced and living on disability because of severe borderline personality disorder. She stops taking her medication and is all about Oprah and The Secret’s law of attraction when she wins an $86-million lottery, reinforcing her illusions of manifestation and grandeur. Alice has one devoted friend, Gina (Linda Cardellini), and her ex (Alan Tudyk) is emotionally supportive as well. But everyone else, including her parents, treats her like a freak.

Alice decides to use her financial freedom to create a two-hour talk show—about herself. A struggling cable network run by two brothers, the greedy Rich (James Marsden) and more ethical Gabe (Wes Bentley, surprisingly likeable and vulnerable), gives her whatever she wants, as long as the multimillion-dollar checks keep clearing. Naturally, it’s a train wreck, with Alice regularly breaking down on camera when she’s not stiffly addressing the audience or making cake out of ground beef.

It’s impossible to pin down what Piven (sister of Jeremy) and first-time feature scripter Eliot Laurence intended Welcome to Alice to be. It’s kind of a reality-show satire, as Alice’s spectacle becomes popular, much to the surprise of the network’s fed-up execs (Joan Cusack, easily the most entertaining here, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, underused). It might be a weak message about preying on people who have challenges. Or is Alice actually smarter than everyone else?

The most dangerous idea the film suggests with its version of happily-ever-after is that the mentally ill (or physically ill, for that matter) should just keep popping pills as their condescending doctors order, even if they’d rather try other methods to control their symptoms. Alice’s psychiatrist, played by Tim Robbins, reacts sarcastically to her belief that protein regulates her moods and “reads” a statement—actually a random brochure—to reiterate his treatment plan. (A running joke has Alice saying, “I’d like to read a prepared statement.”)

The bottom line is that the character is unstable and delusional, few people treat her or her illness with respect, and little of that is fodder for comedy. Alice’s behavior is extreme, but generally a truthful representation of borderline personalities: sharp mood swings, inappropriate anger, and stilted social interactions, all of which require skillful acting. But Wiig’s now got that kind of character nailed down. Are we ever going to see another Dooneese of SNL’s “The Lawrence Welk Show?” In one session, Alice tells her doctor, “It’s a new era. Eighty-six-million-dollar Alice.” Yet it’s the same ol’ Kristen Wiig.

About Elly opens May 8 at E Street Cinema. Welcome to Me opens May 8 at the Angelika Pop-Up.