Discouraged identities and taboo desires emerge tentatively into the open in “Joyland,” but unlike in a many a coming-out drama, there’s no identified villain or oppressor — just an uncertain world in its own state of societal and generational transition. Pakistani writer-director Saim Sadiq’s confident, expressive debut feature is conscientiously fair to everyone in its Lahore-set domestic melodrama of secrets, lies and unforeseen self-discovery, but never feels like it’s hedging its bets or shying away from harder truths. Tartly funny and plungingly sad in equal measure, this is nuanced, humane queer filmmaking, more concerned with the textures and particulars of its own intimate story than with grander social statements — even if, as a tale of transgender desire in a Muslim country, its very premise makes it a boundary-breaker.
As the first Pakistani production ever to unspool in the Cannes official selection, “Joyland” entered the festival as something of a milestone, but proved an immediate crowdpleaser on its own flavorful merits, landing the runner-up Grand Prix in Un Certain Regard and besting Lukas Dhont’s Competition breakout “Close” to the Queer Palme award. Extensive future festival play and arthouse distribution are assured, and not just in the LGBTQ bracket — at a time when transgender lives and rights are very much in the public discourse, the film’s fresh, sympathetic cultural perspective on the subject gives it universal currency.
At its heart, however, this is a gently observed, honestly felt family story, not out to speak for any demographic as a whole, and benefiting considerably from the warm, slightly disheveled charm of screen novice Ali Junejo in the lead. He plays Haider, the scrappy younger son of the Rana family, a hard-up, fractious but close-knit clan occupying the same extended townhouse in central Lahore. A handsome, imaginative daydreamer who hasn’t yet found his calling in life, he has taken a wife — smart, self-sufficient Mumtaz (a superb Rasti Farooq) — but otherwise hasn’t fulfilled the expectations of his conservative father (Salmaan Peerzada).
Unlike his alpha-male older brother Kaleem (Sohail Sameer) — expecting his fourth child with wife Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), and hoping for his first son — Haider and Mumtaz remain childless, while he hasn’t held a job in years. Instead, Haider contentedly plays homemaker (and playful childminder to his three nieces) while Mumtaz assumes the breadwinner role — not the only way in which their mutually affectionate but passionless marriage defies social convention. When he does eventually find employment through a friend, it’s not the traditionally respectable kind: Despite no great gifts in the terpsichorean department, he’s hired as a backing dancer for trans female performer Biba (Alina Khan) at a local nightclub.
Billed as an “erotic” venue, the club’s booty-shaking floor shows aren’t exactly eyebrow-raising by western standards: Indeed, the film’s brightly staged, sequin-spangled, Bollywood-meets-RuPaul dance numbers are bouncy highlights. Still, it’s sufficiently scandalous that Haider lies about his job to his family, claiming he’s merely a stage manager. Also strictly secret, needless to say, is his increasingly close bond with Biba, who teaches him to loosen both his hips and his sensibilities — though as things turn intimate, his naive preconceptions about sexuality come gauchely between them. Sadiq’s wry, intelligent script doesn’t treat their relationship as some kind of revelatory, cure-all lightning bolt, but rather as a litmus test for all that this caring but confused young man has yet to learn about himself and others.
It helps that Biba herself is treated as a full, careworn character once out of the silvery spotlight. Expanding upon a role that she initiated in Sadiq’s Venice-winning 2019 blueprint short “Darling,” trans actor Khan is terrific, leavening proceedings when required with suitably diva-esque saltiness, but also revealing the variously layered defense mechanisms required to survive as a trans woman in a broadly unaccepting, sternly patriarchal and religiously bound society. No female character is glibly drawn in “Joyland,” for that matter. Even when not in the protagonist’s orbit, Mumtaz and Nucchi have inner lives and urges of their own — mutually finding release, in one lovely scene, at a gaudy fluorescent fairground that lends the film its title.
It’s not just in such candy-colored environs, however, that up-and-coming DP Joe Saade (“Broken Keys,” “Costa Brava, Lebanon”) seeks luminescence. Even ostensibly drab domestic scenes are marked by gleaming jewel tones — the palette seemingly taking its cue from the heavily dyed silks of the women’s wardrobe — and shimmering light-play, a visual suggestion of the richer lives sought by everyone in this yearning drama. Even in Biba’s shabby apartment, a cheap neon-green LED light takes on magical properties in one tender scene, its tacky beams skittering across lovers’ faces like a shifting constellation. Sadiq’s visual wit is never more apparent, meanwhile, than in the image of Haider ferrying a giant cardboard standee of Biba across town on his moped: a trans woman literally larger than life, defiantly taking up space against the night sky.