It’s shocking to me that this dazzling, Queer Palm-winning drama is the feature directorial debut of Saim Sadiq. Centered around the Rana family unwinding as the youngest son, Haider, falls for a trans dancer at the erotic theater he works at, it’s a movie that explores how patriarchy hurts everyone. In this film, no one is safe from the violence of gender norms and expectations: from aging grandfathers imposing their wills to young wives desiring more than society, and the men around them, can allow. It’s a movie full of yearning and heartache, executed with an amazing level of technique. More than anything, this feels like a love letter to the millions upon millions of Pakistanis who are tired of placing their dreams on hold to conform to society, who demand the right to be their true selves. I’m so glad that, after much controversy, the Pakistani government decided to release this film, and that it can exist in the world today.
As you can tell from the trailer, the cinematography here is gorgeous. Characters often find themselves washed in luminous colors, glittering against dark backgrounds, as if speaking to the beauty that can be found even in the most hopeless situations. Along with this expressive lighting, the shot composition is another way Sadiq was able to build tone and provide windows into characters’ emotional states. The way he blocks characters shows us how connected, or isolated, they feel in a particular moment. Camerawork is very important here, with some very purposeful zoom-outs and focus-pulling emphasizing a sense of alienation. It’s not a long movie by any means, but its 2-hour runtime goes by even faster thanks to Sadiq’s economical editing. I also think there’s something to be said about the music of Abdullah Siddiqui, which is simple in its construction; but something about that simplicity creates an earnest vulnerability that pulls at the heartstrings in just the right way. Along with these formal aspects, the script is simply phenomenal.
Co-written by Sadiq and Maggie Briggs, I was stunned by the way this movie plays with viewer expectations. While the film certainly doesn’t shy away from how hard it is for Biba to live as a trans woman in her society, I couldn’t help but feel like she was perhaps the most self-assured character in the whole movie. It was everyone else who seemed unhappy in the role society had designated for them, which created room for nuance and added so many layers of humanity to the film. It doesn’t go for the low-hanging fruit, but instead presents us with a scenario as complex and human as life itself. Another reason this script works so well is the acting. There’s not a single bad performance in this movie. The actors all showcase a wide-ranging emotional spectrum, and do so with strong commitment and subtlety, making our hearts ache that much more. It’s not necessarily a happy movie, but there were multiple points here where I found myself smiling and even laughing in the theater; I think that speaks to the way the film hits so many emotional registers all at once.
I was so excited to see this after some of my favorite critics lauded it; and even with expectations as high as mine were, I was blown away. It’s an intimate yet wildly expansive look at themes of gender, familial obligation, sexuality, work and so much more. An incredibly tender, special movie; the kind of film that makes you remember why cinema is such a special medium. Catch Joyland in theaters near you! If you enjoyed this review, consider subscribing to the blog’s Patreon by clicking here! It helps pay the various fees that come with running a website, and keeps this blog ad-free and independent. There are also some cool benefits for those who choose to support the blog in this way including: suggesting which movies I review, getting personalized movie recommendations, access to free giveaways and more!