Desert Dancer

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Desert Dancer Movie Poster Image
Cliché-ridden dance movie has drug content, violence.
  • PG-13
  • 2015
  • 98 minutes

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Kids say

age 17+
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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Teamwork and bravery help overcome a scary situation; characters face danger to achieve something they believe in. Though it's treated simplistically, viewers will learn a little about an oppressive government and how it keeps its people under control; there are questions here about how such a government can be stopped or defied, if even elections are rigged.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Afshin Ghaffarian faces and overcomes oppression and violence; he finds ways to defy the Iranian government and eventually achieves his victory by fleeing to Paris and living his dream. He helps a friend attempt to overcome her drug abuse.


Characters are beaten by the morality police. Sticks and knives are used. Some blood/bloody wounds shown. Guns shown. Hands bound with plastic zip ties.


Two lead characters are clearly smitten with each other, but they never act on the attraction. Brief mentions of "whore" and "kissing."


A use of "s--t."


YouTube is important to the plot.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

The female lead (who's in college) has a heroin habit; she's shown high but not seen taking the drug. The consequences of her habit include an intense detox scene. College students drink vodka. Heroin users in a nightclub. Background cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Desert Dancer is based on the life of Afshin Ghaffarian, who overcame oppression in Iran and lived to fulfill his dream as a dancer. There are scenes of innocent people being beaten and stabbed by the morality police, who use sticks and knives. Guns are shown, and some blood is shown. The main female character has a heroin habit; viewers don't see her using the drug, but she's shown high, and there's an intense detox scene. College students drink vodka, heroin users are shown in a nightclub, and there's some background cigarette smoking. Language includes a use of "s--t." Terms like "whore" and "kissing" are also used, but other than an infatuation between the male and female lead, sexual content isn't really an issue. The movie is serious and full of cliches, but die-hard fans of dance movies will likely be swept away.

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What's the story?

As a boy in Iran, Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) stumbles upon a bootleg DVD of Dirty Dancing and longs to become a dancer himself, even though dance is forbidden by the local "morality police," the Basij. He attends a secret arts school and grows up more determined than ever to follow his dream. In 2009, in the midst of the controversial election between reformer Mir-Hossein Mousavi and incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Afshin recruits several fellow college students and forms a secret ballet club. A key member is Elaheh (Freida Pinto), whose mother, a professional dancer from another era, trained her. They decide to put on a performance in the desert for a small audience, but thanks to an informer, the Basij are on their trail.

Is it any good?

Based on Afshin Ghaffarian’s true story, DESERT DANCER nonetheless relies on a batch of dance movie cliches, from the "forbidden dance" of Footloose to a hokey onstage denouncement at the climax. Certain plot threads, such as Elaheh's heroin addiction, feel tacked on. And others are dropped, such as the fact that Afshin's best friend, Ardi (Tom Cullen), begins as a painter and suddenly switches to dancing with no explanation.

This serious, heavy movie paints a simplistic good-and-evil picture of Iran, with characters speaking English and adopting a Western viewpoint, and director Richard Raymond, making his feature debut, doesn't seem to have enough story to fill out a full-length movie. All that's left is the dancing, which can be beautiful, except that the camera restlessly roams over the performers, as if it's trying to actually dance rather than capture dance. But dance movie fans are still likely to be swept away by the old, familiar moves.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Desert Dancer's violence. How far does the movie go to indicate the threat of the morality police? How dangerous do they feel? Do you think they're portrayed realistically? Are they the same as bullies?

  • Is Afshin Ghaffarian a role model? Do you think his story is told accurately here? Why might filmmakers choose to tweak the facts when adapting a true-life story?

  • Why do you think Elaheh uses heroin? Does she make heroin use look appealing? Not appealing? Are there realistic consequences for drug use in the movie?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dance

Themes & Topics

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