“I think I am many different things”, answers Parvis (Benjamin Radjaipour). The question — posed to him by Amon (Eidin Jalali), his romantic interest and the brother of his friend Banafshe (Banafshe Hourmazdi) — is the most fundamental of questions, one we all grapple with: who are you?
Notions of identity are at the core of No Hard Feelings, the debut feature film of writer-director Faraz Shariat. With Parvis, what strangers often notice first is his homosexuality; his dress, his mannerisms, his bleached hair, are unabashedly gay. His family, however, view Parvis primarily through the lens of heritage. They are Iranian immigrants living in Germany, and although Parvis cannot remember Iran, they still think of him as belonging more to their home country than their adopted one. The German government, meanwhile, sees Parvis as a problem to solve. Serving 120 hours of community service for a minor misdemeanor, they try to find a use for him at the local refugee detention center. There, he runs activities, does minor repairs, and assists officials by serving as a translator — none of which he is especially good at.
These assessments his family and government make of Parvis are not wrong per se, but nor are they right. They are as much an account of the person Parvis is as an arm is a representation of a human body. It is with the overlooked pieces of personhood that No Hard Feelings concerns itself, examining what it means to be seen not just as a reflection of sexuality, ethnicity, culture, or family, but all of them as a combined whole.
For Parvis, being seen comes in the form of Amon, who, along with his sister Banafshe, is a new arrival at the detention center. The two lock eyes on Parvis’ first day there. Amon attempts to steer clear, many of the other Iranian’s housed in the center are homophobic, calling Parvis’ sexuality “contagious”. Associating with Parvis would bring discrimination and all the trouble it entails. This, however, doesn’t stop Banafshe; she becomes close with Parvis, and through her, so does Amon.
There is little in the way of a plot beyond that; the film is low concept to the point of bordering on no concept. The majority of the runtime is spent exploring various aspects of the group’s lives: who they are at home, at work, on a night out. Shariat has gone on record saying the film is autobiographical, drawing from his experiences as an immigrant in Germany at the age of 19-20. The film unquestionably possesses that lived-in quality. The dynamic between Parvis, Amon, and Banafshe comes across as authentic, and Radjaipour, Jalali, and Hourmazdi have great chemistry that makes it feel as if their characters exist beyond the margins of the runtime.
Shariat and co-screenwriter Paulina Lorenz are understated in their writing. Monologues, where characters espouse the film’s ideas, are avoided in favor of observational scenes. Homosexuality, for instance, is examined through many lenses: political, cultural, social, sexual, romantic, and familial. Parvis’ family are refreshingly supportive, they love him even if they don’t quite “get” it. In contrast to a later scene where Parvis has a (graphic) Grindr hook-up with an older man who afterwards says he isn’t usually attracted toward “ethnic” men, his family’s desire to make him feel comfortable seems especially important.
Moments like these are innumerable and they justify the film’s largely structureless narrative. Many LGBT+ films are narratively loose and feel ungrounded because of it. But not so much here; the specificity of the individual moments that make up the film ensure they’re dimensional, real. And that reality endows the film with a level of importance that makes it greater than the sum of its parts. No Hard Feelings is optimistic by virtue of its existence. The fact there is a coming-of-age story about characters who are gay Arabic immigrants is monumental.
It speaks to Shariat’s promise as a director that the film does not lean too hard into that importance and become insufferable by self-aggrandizing. Instead, it sucks you in, granting the opportunity to exist alongside the characters — building empathy through understanding as opposed to diatribes.
Intersectionality is a term that is often misused in our current cultural climate, but regarding No Hard Feelings, it is an apt descriptor. Shariat captures the subtleties that go into the formation of a person’s identity, making space for aspects of personhood that are usually overlooked in film. But equally, the director is upfront about the fact that his experiences are specific and localized. An arresting sequence late in the film highlights that there exist hundreds of thousands of variations on this story. And that their diversity enriches them with value, and that value makes it imperative that they are heard. We can only hope that when their stories are told, it is with as much care as this one.