As her wedding day approaches, a feisty bride (Lisa Ray) falls in love with a shy Muslim woman (Sheetal Sheth) who is also dating a man.
I Can’t Think Straight comes hot on the heels of novelist-turned-writer/director Shamim Sarif’s movie The World Unseen, which recently enjoyed a great deal of success on the queer festival circuit.
A bit of background is necessary before we delve into the plot.
While I Can’t Think Straight is just now being released, it was actually Sarif’s first foray into directing a motion picture. The World Unseen was shown first, but it was made after I Can’t Think Straight – and while both films center around similar themes (such as family pressure in complex, traditional cultures), and both feature the talents of actresses Lisa Ray and Sheetal Sheth, they have a few key differences, mainly in setting and scripting.
Unseen was a lovingly crafted period piece, adapted by Sarif’s own novel of the same name, while Straight is a louder, rougher picture, set in modern London amid the Indian-British and Middle-Eastern communities.
I Can’t Think Straight centers on the relationship between the rich, headstrong Tala, a Jordanian woman and terminal engagement-breaker who faces extreme pressure to marry a well-off Middle-Eastern man, and Leyla, a talented but introspective Indian-British woman who faces similar pressure at home.
Sheetal Sheth as “Leyla”
They meet through Ali (Rez Kempton), a young man Leyla dates casually (though her mother would like to hear wedding bells), and immediately hit it off, beginning a vibrant friendship that soon develops into something much more.
As their relationship grows more romantic, Tala bristles at the thought of breaking off her engagement and upsetting her very traditional parents. Thus, the central conflict is set up – and both characters respond differently. Leyla, who was unsure of her sexuality until she met Tala, takes it upon herself to live out and proud, while Tala is more fearful.
Eventually, it’s clear that their love affair will reach a breaking point.
While the film has a lot going for it, the script is surprisingly paint-by-the-numbers. Viewers familiar with lesbian films will be able to call the ending (and all major points of conflict) long before the credits roll. Also surprising is the number of cringe-worthy lines Ray and Seth utter, since Sarif is clearly a talented writer.
But both actresses rise well above the material, and put in lovely, nuanced performances. Their characters show an enormous amount of emotional growth from their first, tentative steps toward romance to the heartbreaking fights they endure later on.
Sheth makes Leyla’s shyness and confusion believable as those qualities slowly melt away into her confidant later state, and Ray has an expert touch making the usually headstrong Tala so fragile and human when faced with matters of family and her own sexuality.
Lisa Ray as “Tala”
Anyone who has ever had to come out to a traditional family will instantly sympathize.
It’s a treat to watch Ray and Sheth onscreen together, and it’s especially wonderful to see women of color portray realistic, positive lesbian characters. They have terrific chemistry, and an easy grace that translates beautifully to the screen.
The film has plenty of light moments that keep the piece from sinking under the weight of the drama, and it’s underscored with a blend of infectious Indian pop and more Hollywood-esque Western music. More than a few scenes could double as music videos, with frequent musical montages and one very sexy dance between Leyla and Tala.
As for the inevitable comparison to The World Unseen, this film is louder, more colorful, more clichéd and overall more “Hollywood.” It’s clear that Sarif honed her directorial skills for the second production, and one longs for the simple, understated beauty of The World Unseen.
Perhaps it has to do with the setting. Unseen was a period piece, with a slightly more deliberate pace and overall more “grounded” sense of space and time.
But since the two films are so similar – right down to the little thematic touches (such as sympathetic father characters, humorous bit players, and plenty of political talk and gender-role busting) – it’s fun to see the stories play out with the same performers in different eras. They really are complementary movies, and it’s clear that Sarif has a strong voice and an ability to translate her stories onto the screen.
Despite the few clunky scenes, the film is brimming with life, energy and color. It’s an earnest first attempt at filmmaking, and frankly, it’s worthwhile to support lesbian directors like Sarif who are making important, entertaining work and increasing visibility for lesbians of Middle Eastern and Indian descent.
While The World Unseen is certainly superior, I Can’t Think Straight still has undeniable charm.