Dir: Rassul Sadr-Ameli. Iran. 2002. 110 mins.

A young single mother's struggle for survival is the theme of a compelling story that's both universally recognisable and packed with revealing detail unique to contemporary Iran. The country's official candidate for the Foreign Language Oscar and a critical and popular hit there, it arrives at the London Film Festival laden with acting and directing kudos from Fajr and Locarno. International arthouse audiences should have no trouble relating to the film's emotional directness and the quietly heart-rending central performance from screen newcomer Taraneh Alidouni.

Fifteen-year-old Taraneh has a bright future ahead of her. Although her mother is dead and her father in prison for an unspecified, apparently minor offence, she is a cheerful, pragmatic, hard-working girl who lives with her grandmother, earns her living as a part-time shop assistant and excels at school, where she wins a prize for her "skill at managing her life."

All that changes when she becomes the object of the flirtatious attentions of Amir (Hossein Mahjoub), a smooth-talking charmer from the shop next door. At first Taraneh brushes him off, but he refuses to take 'no' for an answer. Against the disapproval of his wealthy family, which unjustly accuses her of ensnaring their son, the couple gets a licence for a "temporary marriage", which will be formalised as soon as Taraneh has graduated.

It would have been useful if the film had spelled out the significance of these temporary marriages for a Western viewer. However, one gathers that they tacitly allow the man to enjoy his conjugal rights, while leaving the woman without any official status. Things start to go badly wrong for Taraneh after Amir turns out to be an immature party animal and the couple splits up by mutual agreement. He disappears to Germany, shortly before the young woman discovers she is pregnant.

That's just the beginning of a chain of misfortune. Taraneh drops out of school, her grandmother dies, leaving her homeless, and her mother-in-law (Mahtab Nasirpour), a social worker who nominally protects women's rights, cold shoulders her, refusing to recognise the child. Taraneh courageously resists pressures to have an abortion and determines to bring up her baby girl alone, although, without a named father, the child is not even entitled to official identity papers and will grow up as marginalised as her mother.

The story is a little slow in unfolding. But this is also a strength, since it allows the film to illustrate all too convincingly how easily a promising life can take a wrong turn and how dearly a girl can be punished for a single error of judgement. The writer-director, Sadr-Ameli, takes a low-key, naturalistic approach which avoids melodrama and captures the minutiae of Taraneh's day-to-day existence. He stresses her resilience and even - in contrast to his similarly themed last film, The Girl In The Sneakers - offers a hint of uplift towards the end. Moving from wide-eyed innocence to a resolute embrace of the difficulties in her life, Alidousti provides the stand-out performance in a story peopled with plausible and sharply etched characters.

Prod co: Milad Film.
Int'l Sales: Farabi Cinema, Teheran.
Prod: Rassul Sadr-Ameli.
Scr: Kambuzia Partovi, Rassul Sadr-Ameli.
Dop: Bahram Badakhshani.
Prod des: Ali Abedini Musavi-Nezhad.
Ed: Mohammad Reza Moueeni.
Music: Majid Entezami.
Main cast: Taraneh Alidousti, Hossein Mahjoub, Mahtab Nasirpour, Milad Sadr-Ameli.