A Westernized Amsterdam teen struggles with her Muslim identity in “Layla M.,” the Dutch submission for Oscar contention in 2016.
It’s a movie that squares off the pressure to assimilate with the teenage need to rebel as Layla, vividly portrayed by Nora El Koussour, wears a burqa, backtalks her “keep your head down and fit in” parents, curses like an American teen and shouts Koranic quotes at those parents to explain her actions.
A nose-ringed Muslim friend confronts her, mid-prayer, at high school — “Take that potato sack off!” — earning a blunt Koranic condemnation and a “You’re dead to me” brush off.
Layla watches radicalizing videos online, befriends a punk would-be Imam (Hassan Akkouch), rages at injustices and flips out and gets arrested when a ban on Muslim assemblies ends a soccer match by police helicopter.
“We spit on your democracy!” she says, repeating what she’s heard online. “Perverts” she curses the cops.
That would be Abdel (Ilias Addab), her fellow radical, the one she has eyes for. Her nightly Facetime with him is where they flirt, where she flings Koranic verses at him about equality of the sexes, and her insistent proposals get through.
They marry, she flees her family and they’re down the rabbit hole of what the authorities have been assaulting their rights over — jihadist training, and from there, to the Middle East.
Co-writer/director Mijke de Jong takes pains to show the role pressure to fit in plays in radicalization. Layla digs her heels in and doubles down, the way many a Trump, Hillary or Bernie voter does. She journeys from “I Chose How I Dress” selfie-videos to taking to falling for the fantasy of an Islamic Planet.
Abdel romanticizes and sentimentalizes his former homeland, playing down the violence and repression that gutted his family and ran them out. “Layla M.” shows a genuine romance, an idealistic young people on the road East, very much in love, talking politics, Islam and their contribution to the struggle.
Of course, the sobering reality on the ground in the Middle East — a rigid patriarchy, put-up-or-shut-up involvement with groups that behead Westerners, the works — ends all that. Addab lets us see the lights go out in Abdel, and how quickly he accepts his new dictactes on how a Muslim man treats his wife.
Layla tries to live her life as before, but comes to the realization that she’s not in Holland any more. Mouthy, cursing, independent women have a place in this closed community, and that place is silently sticking to work in the kitchen.
“Layla M.,” in subtitled Arabic, Dutch and English, isn’t particularly revealing in it exploration of this subject. “Paradise Now” covered some of the same ground a dozen years ago.
What is new is the female point of view, the chilling contrast between the life her parents uprooted their family to give her and the process of her radicalization. There’s no chicken-egg cause-and-effect to this, no “THEY started it” sense of instigation.
Every grievance, every slur and instance of harassment is remembered, police raids just compound her resolve. Cops asking a group of women they’ve rounded up to remove their face-coverings earns a “We’re not asking you to remove your pants!”
The film goes to some pains to show a broader community where people like Layla are the minority. But if “The Arab Spring” taught us anything, it was that teens are going to rebel, no matter what the culture. Understanding that has to be the first step in any hoped-for intervention to keeping the Laylas of the world in school and not thinking Jihadist thoughts.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, sexual situations
Running time: 1:38