Writer-director Mijke de Jong pulls no punches with this crucially detached examination of religious radicalisation that, while arguably not going far enough, nevertheless asks important questions even with a tragic lack of answers.
Dutch-Moroccan Layla (Nora el Koussour, in a striking acting debut) is an affable, passionate young woman who finds herself increasingly enraged at the patent racism she envisages around her, to the point that she becomes acquainted with a group of young conservatives and even falls in love with a prominent member, Abdel (Ilias Addab), all while pushing her friends and family away.
What’s really important here is that de Jong doesn’t dare judge Layla even though it’s easy to at least raise eyebrows at many of her actions. De Jong is clearly trying to provoke a narrative about why people join Islamic extremist sects, because it’s only in better understanding “the enemy” that we as humans can be better to each other, after all (excuse the loftiness).
In terms of showing that transformation from plucky woman playing football to heading over to the Middle East for possibly nefarious reasons, de Jong and Koussour do a remarkable job; the through-line is neat and tidy without much in the way of forced moral ambiguity, yet Layla doesn’t come across as simple-minded or a mouth-piece for any particular agenda either. She feels like a real person.
While it’s fair to say that de Jong doesn’t always keep the drama laser-focused and even at just 98 minutes in length it could probably be trimmed down a little, the film nevertheless tells a vital lesson and in its starling final moments, becomes truly hard to shake.
El Koussour gives one of the most assured debut performances in recent memory, and while de Jong’s direction doesn’t always give her Layla the most efficient of journeys, she embraces the muddier aspects of the character while still presenting someone wholly relatable.
For anyone interest in the toxic potential of faith and the impressionability of youth, this is a largely compelling sit.
Layla M. premiered at the London Film Festival on October 11th