Around the mid-point of Amrou Al-Kadhi‘s kind-of, sort-of autobiographical debut Layla, the titular character wistfully says they exist, ‘in the in-between’. This could easily refer to the film itself. Al-Kadhi’s deeply personal story exists somewhere between their actual experience, and a heightened presentation of how they wish their chosen form of expression could actually be. A tender and frank depiction of a drag queen from a Muslim family, and how they present themselves in the flamboyant world of the clubs, within a relationship with a more straight-presenting lover, and how they stuff the whole persona away around their religious community, it’s narratively slight, but thoroughly immersive.
Latif – or Layla onstage (startling, multi-faceted newcomer Bilal Hasna) – is making waves in the London drag scene and is surrounded by a surrogate family of other flamboyant performers and artists, one that seems like a different planet from his conservative Muslim family. During a corporate performance in which they stage a mild moment of ready-meal based subversion, they catch the eye of Max (Louis Greatorex), a young gay man who is immediately taken with Layla’s confidence and DIY glamour. As the two begin a tentative relationship Layla must navigate the other areas of their life in which Latif is the expected persona, and discovers that even their own ultra-inclusive spaces have boundaries across which some aren’t welcomed.
Layla isn’t a film about a queer person discovering their authentic self. They’ve already found that and Layla is introduced to us fully formed. Really, the story is about how Layla/Latif navigates the other aspects of themself – within their families and other relationships. Hasna fully embodies the role(s), as sweet and shy Latif, restrained almost to automaton levels lest they make the slightest gesture that would give them away, and the confidence of Layla in all their pomp. It’s a scrappy narrative of joyous abandon, but is clear-eyed about its central romantic relationship and the way that Layla’s friends self-defensively close ranks against Max, dismissing him – very pointedly – as a ‘horcrux’. Even the most inclusive can swivel to exclude. In a film about a character that embodies multitudes, it’s an irony that Al-Kadhi wisely doesn’t try to untangle or sand over, presented like Karl Popper’s tolerance paradox in stilettos and sequins.
Elsewhere, the costume design by Cobbie Yates achieves amazing things on a micro-budget, capturing perfectly the improvised glamour of the impoverished dazzling young things in Laylas’s gang. It’s a unicorn paradise where you can see the horn’s a papier mâché simulacra stuck on a donkey, but the clash of colour and decadence and the otherwise utilitarian settings goes a long way to showing just how much Layla lives for their life onstage. In many ways it feels like the lighter counterpoint to Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choong Ping’s noirish, stressful, and threatening Femme.
Layla is clearly an excavation of Al-Kadhi’s past and a celebration of a cherished facet of their persona. There is grit in the cubic zirconia, through the intimate handheld lensing and the unfettered sexuality as well as the setting, which benefits the tone and the sense of a lived-in world. As much as Al-Kadhi wanted to heighten the utopian thrill of Layla’s circle and the environments in which they’re free to be themselves, there is also enough of a reservoir of restraint to keep things solidly clad in the beige nylons of social realism. But it’s those unresolved conflicts that make Layla such a compelling debut.
Screened as part of Sundance Festival 2024