Since the possibility of circumscribing the civil rights of some US residents has become a matter of discussion as a result of the terrorist action of September 11, “Maryam” strikes a timely note. Ramin Serry’s picture isn’t a contemporary story, but in dealing with the hostility to which Iranian-Americans were subjected during the hostage crisis of 1979, it can’t help but raise the question whether, in the wave of patriotism sweeping the nation now, similar wrongs might be perpetrated. It wouldn’t be fair, though, to treat the picture, which was actually made more than two years ago, simply as a commentary on current events. It should be taken on its own terms, both as a period piece and as an examination of the interplay between bigotry and fanaticism. As such it proves affecting, though somewhat heavy-handed.

The titular character, played by winsome Miriam Parris, is an Iranian-American girl whose father, Darius (Shaun Toub), is a physician who left his native land some years before. Maryam, who’s simply called Mary at her school, is obviously trying to fit in and succeed in her studies, and despite her dad’s old-world rigidity, she’s getting close to Jamie, a pleasant fellow student (Victor Jory, whom you certainly won’t confuse with the old actor of the same name), her co- anchor on the campus news broadcast. Matters become complicated, however, when her cousin Ali (David Ackert) arrives from Iran in the middle of the hostage stalemate to live with Maryam’s family while taking up university studies. (His mother has recently died.) As a devout Muslim, actively anti-Shah, Ali finds Maryam’s attempts to assimilate troublesome; it’s gradually disclosed that he also nurtures deep resentment toward Darius because of the latter’s involvement in the death of Ali’s father, a political activist killed by government agents. The boy is further angered when the exiled Shah is allowed into the United States to receive medical treatment in a New York hospital–a circumstance that leads to protests and virulent American counter-reaction. More and more Maryam’s family feels the force of anti-Iranian prejudice.

Much of “Maryam” has the schematic feel of an afterschool TV special, but though some of the narrative elements–the bitchy blonde competitor at school (Sabine Singh), the Iranian youth (Maziyar Jobrani) who eschews politics for girls, the next-door neighbors (Marisa Redanty and Michael Ingram) whose friendship is tested by events–are terribly obvious, for the most part the earlier portions of the picture are fairly persuasive and often touching. Unfortunately, in the latter reels the level of melodrama escalates and the picture grows increasingly shrill. A big confrontation between Darius and Ali, and in particular Ali’s attempt to take political matters into his own hands, have a contrived feel to them, and the happy ending comes across as forced (as well as implausible). Maryam, moreover, remains rather opaque at the close–it’s not entirely clear precisely how the experience has altered her.

Technically the production is a trifle ragged, though the use of news footage to provide context is effective and the designers have been fairly successful in capturing a period ambience. The quality of acting is variable, with Parris and Ackert filling the major roles well but many of the supporting players rather weak. Serry, moreover, allows the action to meander rather clumsily at some important points. Still, there’s a sincerity and earnestness to “Maryam” that encourage one to be as generous as possible in forgiving its flaws and appreciating its simple virtues. However, the picture would be better suited to public television, where its modest character will be more at home and its didacticism perhaps less blatant.