Drag queens are a huge part of contemporary pop culture. They are on TV, on social media and forever on the minds of conservative politicians who try to ostracize them and muffle their voices. Yet despite this ubiquity, they rarely appear as movie leads. Writer-director Amrou Al-Kadhi rectifies that with their debut feature “Layla,” unspooling in the World Dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Like most Sundance discoveries, it introduces a new voice trying to carve a space for themselves in the medium. And like most feature debuts, it shows how that voice needs to be honed and nurtured, so that their next feature might more successfully accomplish its goals.
Layla (Bilal Hasna) is a London drag queen living a double life. With their friends, they live their truth as a nonbinary person and drag performer. Yet when they visit their Palestinian family, they become Latif, the dutiful son. Layla keeps their identity hidden even from their sympathetic sister Fatima (Sarah Agha). Performing at a corporate Pride event they meet attractive executive Max (Louis Greatorex). Though the event goes awry, with Layla causing a commotion after she is disrespected, she and Max wind up going to a party together.
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Al-Kadhi captures both of Layla’s worlds with an astute eye for the details that define their relationships: Layla’s reticence and reluctance when their sister keeps reaching out, and their tender physical bond with Max. They immediately have sex, but it’s clear from their chemistry that this is more than a one-night stand, and they cautiously begin dating. This setup is well modulated, grounded realistically in Layla’s point of view. In the film’s first half, Hasna comfortably fills the screen with Layla’s exuberance and joie de vivre; the star’s charming duet with Greatorex demonstrates how innocent and exciting new romance can be.
But as the relationship deepens, Layla and Max find it hard to fit into each other’s worlds. Both guard secrets and lies: Max has talent as an artist but hides that from his traditional upper-class British family. Al-Kadhi conjures an unsettling atmosphere for the lovers, clearly showing how leading a double life can harm the psyche. As the lovers keep arguing, breaking up and reconnecting, the performances become less affecting, hampered by serviceable dialogue that doesn’t support at the deep connection the script insists on. The audience, meanwhile, loses any sense of why these characters want to be together.
In building Layla’s world beyond their family and Max, Al-Kadhi squanders another opportunity to add dimension to their protagonist. Layla’s three closest pals are interchangeable, with no distinct characteristics, despite the film selling them as chosen family. One of them, photographer Princy (Safiyya Ingar), briefly makes a mark in one scene, calling out Layla for always prioritizing straitlaced white lovers over their more diverse friends. Ingar has a righteous fury that pops off the screen, but the film never follows up on these grievances, and Princy becomes an anonymously supportive friend once more.
Collaborating with cinematographer Craig Dean Devine, Al-Kadhi gives Hasna the full star treatment. The camera adoringly follows Layla as they perform and fall in love, and refreshingly emphasizes their curves and their femme nature, showing Layla’s self-pride. Cobbie Yates’ costume shows the distinctive characteristics of Layla and everyone in their world, as well as what mood they’re in — something the script doesn’t always manage.
Al-Kadhi is playing with many interesting themes here, among them the idealization of “straight-acting” white men in the queer community, and the divided lives of many queer people from the Global South. Layla’s experience as someone who does not have faith in their family embracing their queerness is one to which many children of immigrants might relate. However, after a successful setup, Al-Kadhi doesn’t explore these issues to their fullest potential, and “Layla” ends up only a half-realized portrait.
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