‘Joyland’ – Review

In his debut feature, Saim Sadiq crafts a story sensitive in nature and vibrant in visuals while tackling divided gender roles and repressed sexual desires in his homeland of Pakistan. 

At the heart of Joyland is an honest family story focusing on how gender and sexuality quietly and painfully manifest. Haider is a daydreamer amidst his traditional family. The soft-spoken man is in an understanding relationship with Mumtaz. In the relationship, Haider takes on the unconventional role of a homemaker while his wife is a makeup artist. They remain childless unlike his older brother Kaleem and Nucchi who are on their fourth child. The patriarch of the Rana family sets high expectations for his younger son to pick up the slack. Despite the familial pressure, Haider and Mumtaz make the most of being together. 

Within the film’s first few moments, the family expectations on Haider are set: a job and a son to continue the Rana patriarchy. When Haider enlists an old friend to help with the job search, life takes a detour. With no dance experience, he gets cast as a background dancer for an underground, “erotic” theater act led by a transgender woman, Biba. To avoid his family’s disapproval, Haider hides the truth and claims he is a stage manager. 

Haider is not the only character that is explored behind closed doors. When they are not around the men of the family, Nucchi and Mumtaz share a sisterly dynamic full of hope. As soon as the family gathers, they return to dull versions of themselves. In contrast, Haider and his brother, Saleem, never reach a place of comfort like the women. Their relationship revolve around who Haider is in society and what he will provide to the family.

Feeling voyeuristic, Joyland utilizes body language and movement to express the desires of its characters. A 4:3 aspect ratio forces a closeness between the characters to emphasize repressed sexual tension. The movement of the camera matches the emotional energy of the scenes. Most of these closely framed moments are followed by quiet. The quiet gazes speak loudly of the withheld liberation sought out by the charcaters. Mumtaz fantasizes about a version of herself not anchored to the Rana family as she watches a neighbor through her binoculars and becomes aroused.

For Haider, Biba is his object of desire. The moment she steps on screen, she is a commanding force. The male gaze on Biba is aggressive in comparison to Haider’s gentle gaze that captures the beauty within her. He uses the relationship to understand his own confused identity, but it leads to Biba’s insecurity about her womanhood. By making Biba more than her identity, she is able to balance being a diva with the mechanisms required to survive as a trans woman in an unaccepting patriarchal society. Haider brings out her insecurities due to his naiveté as he projects his own shame onto others, making them questions themselves. It is these moments that speak to how well these characters are written to be complex and vulnerable. Sadiq writes comedic and emotionally powerful scenes to display their constant search for purpose.

Given its conservative backdrop, Joyland is not afraid to take risks in exploring religion versus sexuality. From the first interaction between Biba and Haider, something inside of him awakes. Biba becomes an intoxicating presence in his life that he can’t get enough of. As they continue to spend time together, Haider becomes a version of himself he could never be at home. The film presents a simple story of self-discovery and love that always feel on edge, reflecting how human moments can lead to a mess or a sense of euphoria. 

Offsetting the daring topics of the film is the luminescent cinematography of Joe Saade. Glowing jewel tones brighten up the muted domestic scenes. The peak of the shimmering lights suggestion of the richer lives everyone in the film truly seeks. Biba’s run-down apartment illuminated by neon-green LED lights that make the most tender scenes shared in the space feel magical.  

From the dazzling lights on stage or silent moments of self-reflection, there is always an inner urge to be released in Joyland.

Grade: A+

Oscar Prospects:
Likely: Best International Feature
Should be Considered: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Picture

Release Date: Full release TBA
Where to Watch: In Select Theaters

Jillian Chilingerian
she/her @JillianChili
Lives in LA
Favorite Director: David Fincher
Sign: Leo

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