I have to admit up front that the desi content of this movie is so minimal that it doesn't strictly belong on Filmi Geek. But what the heck, I'll write about it anyhow. I crave stories about love between women, and I crave stories in which women in patriarchal cultures (including my own culture, I must point out) find the value of asserting autonomous control over their own sexuality. Shamim Sarif's I Can't Think Straight at least attempts to offer both. And with my interest in the rich, diverse cultures of both the Middle East and India, this romance between a Jordanian aristocrat (Lisa Ray) and a London daughter of middle-class Indian immigrants (Sheetal Sheth) should have hit all my sweet spots. Instead, it's a warty, often cringe-worthy production. But I can't bring myself to shred it mercilessly. I Can't Think Straight is a movie whose ham-fisted unsubtlety is punctuated by occasional moments of smart and sexy. It's a movie, in short, that is a lot like me.
To its credit, I Can't Think Straight has some sweetness to it and strikes a few good targets. The relationship between Tala (Ray) and Leyla (Sheth) starts off contrived but becomes more believable as the film progresses. Early on Tala's brash confidence overwhelms the tentative Leyla. But it becomes clear that Tala's numerous broken engagements are not the result of strong-headed wilfulness - to the contrary, they are the detritus of her confusion, uncertain attempts to be what her overbearing mother wants her to be. In the meantime, Leyla's arc takes the opposite trajectory - as she comes into her own as a writer and as a lesbian, her uncertainty transforms into absolute strength and confidence. "You have to admire her guts," says a mutual friend of the two women (Rez Kempton), and he's quite right.
And so the two women don't just feel attraction to one another, but they do deeply change one other. Tala challenges Leyla's already shaky adherence to her Muslim faith. In return, Leyla inspires Tala to stand up to the culture that Tala feels limits her choices so severely. When Tala insists that she cannot pursue her love for Leyla because Jordanian high society is closed-minded and conservative, Leyla points out that "it will stay that way, as long as no one is willing to challenge it."
These are the movie's strengths. Unfortunately this simply moving story is embedded in a distracting matrix of cliché, stereotype, caricature, and unsubtlely that requires an entire tray of freshly-baked eyerolls to get through. Tala's mother Reema (Antonia Frering) is a cartoon witch of a Middle-Eastern socialite, making her daughters miserable with constant harping on their weight and fashion choices, and barking orders at staff who despise her. ("Where is my husband? And where is my coffee?") Leyla's mother (Siddiqua Akhtar) is even worse, hitting every stereotype of the provincial, fresh-off-the-boat NRI housewife. Her performance is dreadful, full of mealy smiles and nahin-faces that would be better suited to a saas-bahu serial than to a movie that appears to want to be understated. This is the only remotely desi content in the film, and it's just cringe-inducing.
The early stages of Tala and Leyla's relationship are particularly fraught with facepalm moments of dreadful writing. Leyla seems perpetually to attract bits of lint that Tala is compelled to pluck off of her, leading one to wonder why Sarif could not come up with other excuses for the two women to touch. A tennis match provides an especially corny and heavy-handed metaphor for their growing attraction, complete with a breathlessly panted "That was amazing!" at its conclusion. Tennis is not effete enough to convey Tala's aristocratic milieu, so she also plays a polo match, leading to one of the film's most nauseating exchanges:
Leyla (practically batting her eyelashes): I was worried you were going to fall, leaning across the horse like that!
Tala (with forced nonchalance): I like to take chances.
Filmi Geek: Puke.
Moments like this are bad enough, and the unsubtlety just gets thicker and thicker. At its nadir, Leyla's sympathetic and proactive sister Yasmin (Amber Rose Revah) tries to figure out what's troubling Leyla, before the latter has come out even to herself. The astute Yasmin notices a stack of books on Leyla's dresser - Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, even Martina Navratilova's autobiography - and a k.d. lang CD nearby. Really, Sarif? Really? And finally, the entire movie may be one extended setup for this chestnut of a punchline uttered by a gossipy Middle Eastern lady in its denouement: "She's what? But some of my best friends are Lebanese!"
The weak writing - both for the caricatured parents and the lovers themselves - hog-ties all the actors into stiff, formulaic performances. In contrast to all this woodenness, the movie's sex scenes are outstanding - fluid, passionate, and downright hot. It seems that when Sarif cuts her actors loose and lets them just be and feel, they can do a lot more than when constrained by the fetters of Sarif's unnatural scripting.
The movie's 80-minute running time, while merciful, also forces it to short-change anything more than superficial examination of how either woman's cultural and religious heritage affects their prospect for life together. Tala asserts that her reluctance to lead the "difficult" life in a lesbian relationship is due to the strictures of Jordanian society, but her family is so outrageously wealthy and her life so apparently divorced from Jordanian society that her reasoning is suspect. Even a white American child of such a socially prominent and controlling mother would have a hard time rebelling against parental expectations; there is nothing especially Middle Eastern about this. Meanwhile, Leyla's struggle against her culture is painted in the color of stereotype and seems to resolve itself the moment she comes out to herself and her family. If the dialogue weren't so painful, it would be nice to have 40 minutes more of it, to give some more depth to aspects of these characters' lives that could have been more particularly Arabic and desi.
Still, I wouldn't devote so many words to complaining about the weaknesses of a movie that doesn't also show a lot of potential to be better. For all those stiffly executed, lazily written scenes, I Can't Think Straight offers moments of delicate thoughtfulness and sympathy for its characters. These (plus the terrific sex scenes, which are worth watching again, for research purposes of course) make it worth cringing through the worst parts, if stories about love between women are as close to your heart as they are to mine.