I Can’t Think Straight is a film by Shamim Sarif that attempts to deal with culture, religion, and sexuality within the period of an hour and fifteen minutes. The story tells the tale of Leyla, an Indian Muslim, who falls in love with Tala, a Jordanian Christian. Heavy on Orientalist porn and thin on a plot, the film was a major disappointment. Instead of actually providing a critical look into how being a lesbian would be impacted by culture or religion, it followed the formula for a romantic comedy with an “ethnic” twist.
Within the first 27 seconds of the movie, I was confronted with haunting tribal music, the image of a mosque, and the silhouette of a woman. This set the tone for one of the things that irritated me the most. The film made mention of political and religious sound bytes even within the beginning of the film. I hoped that these would only be light-hearted starting points for a strong conversation. Unfortunately, this did not really move in a progressive direction. Most of the characters in the film served as a cultural minstrel show, to provide a constant reminder of the “oppression” that both of these women were surrounded by.
The connection between Leyla and Tala seemed to be based upon a mutual existence as anomalies within a repressive culture. The conversations leading up to their relationship primarily revolved around representing them as outliers. Both Leyla and Tala were subjected to the eyes of demanding cultures and nagging mothers. This especially bothered me when the two women discuss men, generalizing the men from their respective cultures and giving the impression that Leyal and Tala were lesbians only because they rejected men. Other than these limited conversations, their courtship is limited to sound bytes that sound like dialogue from a pornographic film. I spent a great deal of time wondering when the lights would dim and the seductive music would begin.
The roles that the women played were also problematic. While they eventually interchanged, initially Tala was introduced in the way that Matthew McConaughey is usually introduced: someone who could not be tied down, on a fourth engagement, wildly independent, and the subject of many hushed whispers. Leyla, on the other hand, was very much like the prototype for the heroine of a romantic comedy: clumsy, strong-willed but unsure, with a hidden passion. Instead of creating an original story, the leads of a typical romantic comedy were switched with lesbians. This makes the assumption that traditional gender roles apply to any relationship, despite the nature of it.
The men in the film were also a source of problems for me, especially within the unraveling of the sexualities of these women. In general, the men in the film were either the source of sound bytes about Israel, suicide bombing, or forms of social propriety. This reinforced this idea that these women are lesbians because of the men around them, rather than depicting their sexuality as an innate quality.
Interestingly, the fathers of both women are the ones that are accepting of their sexualities in the end. While I thought this was a refreshing interpretation of men in predominately Muslim worlds, it was troubling on another level. In general, both fathers had more interaction with the western world, while the women were enveloped more in the traditional (and thus “backward”) world. Thus, I wondered if they were more progressive because they were more “westernized”. I felt this way about other male characters, including Sammy, who lives in New York, and Leyla’s boyfriend, Ali, raised in the United Kingdom.
The theme of East vs. West was always in the background, but never properly developed. I thought it was interesting that there were similar dynamics in the families of the two women. While I thought that this was a great representation of the diversity of struggles, it merely seemed to reduce “Eastern” cultures to monolithic and oppressive forces.
The film was light on actually discussing cultural conflicts, and this was very apparent in the scene that Leyla came out to her parents. Instead of a difficult moment that might show the actual hardships that would be faced by a lesbian Indian Muslim, we only hear Leyla’s mother screaming about hell, shame, and corruption. Cultural and religious issues were swept under the rug, only to be dealt with to keep our heroines apart long enough to realize their need to be together. It felt like there was a need to clumsily “solve” the cultural issues, so that we could return to the formula of how they would end up together again. Furthermore, the way in which they were settled were not only unrealistic, but unsatisfying and hardly any insight into the types of struggles that lesbians within that actual situation would experience.
Instead of a film that could have really analyzed an intersection between culture, religion, and sexuality, it felt lazy and reliant on the fact that the movie would be controversial no matter what. With a lack of character development, social context, or exploration of sincerely difficult issues, this movie ultimately left me disappointed. In the time spent with generic banter, cheesy montages, and recycled characters, this movie could have been the starting point for some profound conversations.