Monday, June 17, 2013

An Odd Mix Of Originality And Well-Established Conceits, I Can’t Think Straight Is Worth Watching!

The Good: Wonderful direction, Some wonderful lines, Engaging characters
The Bad: Cultural lecturing, Overbearing soundtrack, Somewhat contrived ending devoid of struggles
The Basics: An engaging love story, I Can’t Think Straight belabors its own political statements at the expense of realistic flow.

Happy Pride Month! As a reviewer, Pride Month is a good time for me to actually watch movies in my queue that I have, for one reason or another, just not gotten around to before now. My excuse for not watching I Can’t Think Straight before today is an unfortunately thin one; it’s not just Summer Blockbuster Season that prevented me from giving this movie my full attention until now. I learned of I Can’t Think Straight two years ago when I was deep at work writing my own television series and when I was browsing at a local bookstore, I came across I Can’t Think Straight. Based on the casting needs of my project, I was instantly excited by the idea of I Can’t Think Straight and its Middle Eastern cast. But, as things have a tendency to do, I got busy actually writing and so many other things came up that I Can’t Think Straight just continued to get pushed back.

But, a film about Middle Eastern lesbians was always one I intended to return to and today’s the day! And, having now seen it, my only real surprise was to learn that I Can’t Think Straight is the sophomore film for (co-)writer/director Shamim Sarif. The surprise comes from the fact that so much of the writing is on the nose and the way the ultimate resolutions for the characters are made without any sense of realistic challenge – an issue I well recognize from Within These Walls (reviewed here!). While I entirely respect Sarif’s work here, she belabors making political statements with almost every line and that takes the place of more organic character establishment and development. The result is a film that could have been viscerally passionate and engaging, but is instead clunky and preachy more often than not. While objectively average, it was hard not to feel let-down by the promise of I Can’t Think Straight.

In Amman, Jordan on the day of the engagement party for Tala and Hani, Tala’s family is excited and gathered for the festivities. Given that Tala has broken her engagements multiple times before, this party is a big event for both families. Meanwhile in London, Leyla – who is of Indian descent - is working to avoid following in her father’s business (selling insurance) when her boyfriend Ali takes her to meet his friend Tala, they get into a spirited discussion of religion. Leyla wants to write, but when she goes out with Ali to the club, she finds herself in a tennis match with Tala. Despite being somewhat competitive and having very different religious views, Tala and Leyla begin an unlikely friendship.

When her progressive sister looks over her room (and c.d. collection), she figures out that Leyla is probably gay, but does not push her on it. Leyla and Tala go on a vacation together to visit Tala’s sister, Lamia. While in Oxford, Tala teaches Leyla to dance and Layla makes a more assertive move on her friend, resulting in passion and lovemaking between the two. In the morning, Tala rejects the idea of having a relationship with Leyla, despite the two continuing to spend time together on holiday. Ratted out by Lamia, Tala’s calculating mother arrives in London with Hani and Leyla pushes Tala away. Returning home, Leyla comes out to her mother and, despite Leyla trying to move on, her ex-boyfriend and sister conspire to get Tala and Leyla together.

First off, what is good about I Can’t Think Straight. I Can’t Think Straight, fortunately, does not fall into the gruesome but all-too-common niche in lesbian and gay cinema where ordinary love is met with violence and some measure of horror. Instead, I Can’t Think Straight takes a philosophical route that is far more cerebral than it is graphic and for those dreading yet another film where bad things happen to lesbian or gay characters simply on account of their sexuality, fortunately this film is not that. With some element of realism, it is the characters themselves who make themselves miserable more than external forces or characters.

As well, writers Shamim Sarif and Kelly Moss smartly create two exceptionally well-rounded characters who defy the ordinary conventions of their initial characterization. Tala is a Jordanian atheist (or, at the very least, agnostic) who is initially established as more adventurous and headstrong than Leyla. Leyla is characterized as trapped (in her father’s business), Muslim, and much more reticent toward publicly breaking with tradition. But when the two begin to interact, the initial impressions one has about the women changes as Leyla illustrates she is far more personally courageous and Tala is trapped within her own expectations and cultural conceits. That works wonderfully.

What does not work as well is the characterization of Tala’s mother. I have no issue with the political statements Tala’s mother makes (well, I do, but given that she is a stereotype of an exceptionally wealthy conservative Jordanian woman, her political statements – mostly anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-Western – are not at all surprising), but rather with the way she makes them. The writers pack I Can’t Think Straight chock full of politics and while I love that in theory, in practice in this film, it comes across entirely wrong. Characters like Tala’s mother sound like they are pitching political talking points, many of which are self-referential (“We’re Jordanian, so of course we believe . . .” “As a good Muslim, I know . . .”). That does not work in an organic way because the characters – who are in their twenties – all know their cultural identity and their personal politics. Tala has, no doubt, lived with decades of lectures on what “her” culture is from her mother and father, so the idea that her mother is now saying anything new is utterly ridiculous and it comes across in an entirely inorganic fashion in I Can’t Think Straight. Ironically, the conceit of the wedding preparations could have been used to solve this problem easily, by introducing a young relative who could have been lectured to by Tala’s mother, but c’est la vie.

For an independent film by a sophomore director, I Can’t Think Straight does not feel like what it is. Instead, Sarif has an amazing visual sense and I Can’t Think Straight looks absolutely beautiful. The direction and lighting are top notch and the film flows exceptionally well. As well, Sarif gets good performances out of a largely unknown cast. Given that there was only one moment of clunky acting – in one of the earliest meetings between Tala and Leyla there is a very broken up delivery of a line – something about “how else can I find out what is going on underneath that quiet exterior?” – I Can’t Think Straight does not feel at all amateurish on the acting front.

Led by Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth, I Can’t Think Straight has good acting (despite some of the characters being written more like “types” than feeling like actualized individuals. Ray and Sheth have great on-screen chemistry and they get a wonderful banter between them that has a fun, fresh sense of energy when their characters interact. Their enthusiasm and inherent passion is almost enough to allow the viewer to overlook how easily their characters’ lives come together at the climax of the film.

Despite some wonderful lines, great direction and almost flawless acting, I Can’t Think Straight is more preachy than passionate and more political than it is populated by love story characters, making it more average than exceptional.

For other works with strong lesbian characters, please visit my reviews of:
The Incredibly True Adventure Of Two Girls In Love
The L Word - Season 4


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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