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Layla is a stylish queer melodrama that could use another coat of polish

‘Layla’ is a stylish queer melodrama that could use another coat of polish

Layla
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The film made its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival 2024.

joshkorngut

An unabashed portrait of a non-binary person's experience with dating, sex, and cultural connection, Layla from Amrou Al-Kadhi is an engaging and heartwarming queer love story that would benefit from another layer or two of polish. While the writing might feel sophomoric and unrefined at times, there are still such moments of believable queer joy that it’s impossible not to root for all involved. Most importantly, the two romantic leads have a visible chemistry that gives the film a sexy and voyeuristic feel.

The story follows Layla (Bilal Hasna), a rising star of the London drag scene who struggles to find connection and love as a non-binary performance artist. When Layla takes a corporate gig to make an easy buck, they encounter Max (Louis Greatorex), a straight-passing career boy from a very different walk of life. Sparks fly, and soon, these two find themselves on a star-crossed romantic whirlwind. Sadly, their inherent differences cause immediate challenges, and the two lovers are forced to confront their own identities in the process of falling in love.

The romance here is interesting and exciting, giving whiffs of a top-shelf Netflix series. The script understands this as it dips in and out of meta-commentary. Sadly, these moments feel more insecure than they do self-reflective. The story’s melodrama is presented as something more substantive than it ever really is. There’s nothing wrong with some well-constructed melodrama—especially when it’s playing its part in normalizing queer stories. I would have liked to see the film achieve more self-awareness in this department. I believe a less self-serious approach would have helped the overall tone.

The excellent music choices and exciting drag performances are definitely worth mentioning. It’s clear that the filmmaker is an experienced artist, as all of the drag on display feels thoughtful, cohesive, and inspired. Lip-syncs are expertly shot, and a magnetic use of the Perfume Genius track “Queen” is a truly standout moment.

On some level, Layla can be read as a story about not fitting in, but it takes a strange stance by showing how both sides of the coin can feel alienated by the other. It’s difficult to feel compassion for Max, a cis, straight-passing partner, for not fitting in with an underground world of fringe non-conformers. For these themes to work in tandem, we need to feel for Max just as we do for Layla. And I wasn’t able to access that.

While the strongest part of the film is the romantic moments between the leads, unfortunately, its platonic queer friendships feel forced and difficult to believe. Side characters come across as stock and are too heavily reliant on familiar tropes. Thankfully, the two leading roles are exceptionally well cast, and their chemistry is sexy and complex. I would have liked to see the film focus on these two even more rather than get caught up in half-baked side stories about friends and family.

Occasionally worthy of an eye-roll, the phenomenal energy of Layla was infectious enough to bring a smile to my face for most of the film. It’s a competent drama about the non-binary experience, warts and all, and is a fun and stylish addition to the queer cinema canon.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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Josh Korngut

Josh Korngut is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. He's also the managing editor of Dread Central, a web publication that covers all things horror. Check out his podcast, Development Hell, wherever you listen, and say hi to him on socials via @joshkorngut.

Josh Korngut is a writer and filmmaker based in Toronto. He's also the managing editor of Dread Central, a web publication that covers all things horror. Check out his podcast, Development Hell, wherever you listen, and say hi to him on socials via @joshkorngut.