Any film named after the protagonist just isn’t gonna work without a home-run performance, and Nora El Koussour certainly lives up to the challenge in her big-screen debut. As Layla, she handles outrage, defiance and remorse with the confidence and panache of a screen veteran, and doesn’t miss a beat when Layla M. offers us a glimpse of the the frightened teenager behind the passionate activist. While this is Layla’s story, and Jan Eilander’s script doesn’t give costar Ilias Addab a lot to work with, his chemistry with El Koussour fills in the gaps in the thinly-sketched character of Abdel.
Mijke de Jong tamps down on the flashy camerawork, largely following Layla and keeping her in frame as much as possible. This restriction plays well into Layla M.’s narrative; we feel as eager to explore the new places Layla finds herself in as she does. Remaining in Layla’s orbit as the film progresses is the right choice – but without delving into spoiler territory, it is a shame that her family don’t play a larger role in the second half of Layla M.
Layla’s growing unsettlement with her society makes for an uneasy watch. Layla M. approaches radicalisation even-handedly, neither villainising those involved nor overly sympathising with characters making problematic choices. What emerges is a sombre and empathetic piece that deftly sidesteps the controversies in the subject matter. Layla M.’s feminist overtones are also deeply moving, and tie the whole film together as Layla finds that the barriers to respect and acceptance aren’t simply rooted in xenophobia.
Spinning together current news headlines with elements of John Hughes movies and Bonnie & Clyde, Layla M. is as topical as it is heartbreaking. This atypical coming-of-age story is a fantastic debut for Nora El Koussour.
CAST: Ilias Addab, Nora El Koussour
DIRECTOR: Mijke de Jong
WRITERS: Jan Eilander, Mijke de Jong
SYNOPSIS: While Layla’s father shrugs them off, she struggles with the ease with which racial slurs are thrown about at a football match. Increasingly disillusioned by her own society’s latent discrimination and its indifference to violence in the Middle East, Layla begins to find a sense of community with people who share her concerns.