Joyland is a tasteful but passionless family drama

Another example of a tasteful but passionless festival film, Saim Sadiq’s feature debut joyland errs on the side of arch family drama when its most interesting aspects remain almost on the periphery, promising a much better film. Simply put, what seemed like a modern iteration of Josef von Sternberg The blue angel should have a bit more pizzazz, though, unfortunately, such a comparison may be the exact projection a reviewer makes when frankly bored by a film.

In this modern melodrama we find, residing in the Pakistani city of Lahore, the Rana family, who (though dysfunctional) remain a tight-knit unit. But most of the trouble comes with our leader, son Haider (Ali Junejo), who keeps getting into trouble. Early on, asked to kill a goat to prove his place as a man by his quietly intimidating, wheelchair-bound father (Salmaan Peerzada), he falters and his wife Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq) quickly jumps to the task, emasculating him. in front of the whole clan.

While they are expected to produce a boy for the family after the birth of their daughter, other pressures arise in the family home, compounded by the sweltering heat of the city. So looking to earn money to help pay for an air conditioner, Haider finds a job as a background dancer at a local theater where the lead actor is transgender performer Biba (Alina Khan). Embarrassed to admit what he is doing to his traditional valued family, Haider soon clashes even more when he begins to obsess over and eventually fall in love with Biba, further straying from conservative Pakistani norms supported by smothering parents. .

Shot in the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which the director would probably cite as representing how the characters are locked into society or their circumstances or whatever, maybe that’s still the gambit most interesting formal in a work covering all-too-familiar territory (e.g. simply placing the camera behind a character’s head signifies a kind of clever distance). And or joyland might have stood out was in its actual dance sequences, but largely forgoes them as if the film is almost as ashamed of that medium as its lead role. While a seduction between Haider and Biba in his apartment, lit by garish lights, shows the potential for a sexy milieu, otherwise expect to see more hand-held devices and naturalism – the tradition of quality for a serious festival.

And without accusing the film of merely using its trans persona as a prop, Biba’s presence could certainly be heavier; she’s a far more interesting figure than just being another placeholder for the toxic patriarchy in Haider’s family. The call of responsibility hanging over Haider is probably relatable to many, but doesn’t necessarily form a particularly insightful piece of work. There’s a reason why a family member’s tragic end doesn’t quite resonate with the audience – it’s as if their suffering is a definitive conclusion. We almost want joyland to be a movie Haider might actually enjoy, not just another chore.

joyland screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.