We meet the title character first as the disenchanted daughter of immigrants in Denmark, struggling to learn more about Islam and practice it overtly, even as she enjoys kicking around a soccer ball and deals with her not-quite-so-conservative family members.
Drawn into a social circle of other young Muslims who resent the increasing Islamophobia in Europe, Layla goes against her family's wishes. She dons the niqab - not so much as a symbol of inner spirituality as much as a gesture of political defiance disguised as Islamism - and then elopes with an overly zealous, equally young jihadi man.
As they flee across Europe to Jordan (making a pit stop where Layla is kept sitting in the car while her husband goes off to create a jihadi boy band nasheed video), we begin to see her realize the enormity of what she has done. The idealism of her beliefs slowly evaporates, her dreams of a marital partnership based on respect and equality increasingly crushed by every new limitation imposed upon her, and the horrifying recognition of what, exactly, her new life entails.
But what made Layla M. so painful for me to watch - and yet impossible to stop watching - was how it was akin to watching an alternate reality version of myself.
As a young teenager, I gloried in jihadi anasheed (not going to lie, my playlist is still full of the classics); I daydreamed of a grand hijrah, of marrying a brave, earnest mujaahid, of engaging in a glorious mission of social work and sacrifice and battle for the sake of the Muslim Ummah. (Spoiler: none of that happened IRL.) If not for the right set of circumstances (and a solid set of parents), it would have been all too easy for me to become Layla M.
Layla M. is not just some horror story of a young woman kidnapped by some crazed jihadi man and then held prisoner. No, Layla M. is about a smart young woman, someone who is acutely aware of the politics of Islamophobia, not just in a theoretical in-the-Muslim-world kind of way, but in a right-here-at-home kind of way. Layla feels the impact of the virulent hate spread against Muslims, and she chooses to join a certain social circle of individuals; she chooses to run away from home and marry a man with whom she already knew she could never have a 'normal' happily-ever-after with. Her inner sense of justice and what is right - what should be right - burns too strongly for her to be content with being a good girl, a quiet girl, an immigrant girl who assimilates silently.
Indeed, it is the lack of outright villainy which makes Layla M's story so disconcerting. Her husband Abdel is not an evil, abusive monster. He is young, like her, brash, overly confident, utterly clueless. Their wedding night is painfully awkward in the way of most Muslim virgins - and one almost sighs with relief on their behalf when she mumbles, "I'm on my period," and they settle down together with only slightly less awkwardness.
And yet, romance does grow - in a sense. Abdel takes himself too seriously, but in a scene that is both utterly heartbreaking as well as intensely cringeworthy, Layla pulls him into a dance with her, and they share a sweetness that every teenage jihadi fangirl dreams of (or maybe that was just me. I don't know. Don't judge, okay? I had a lot going on in my head at the time. Hormones, mostly.).
Layla M. is jarringly real in a way that the phrase "Instagram ISIS wives" could never feel real (despite being an actual thing). It cuts to the core of so many realities, of the harshness of growing up Muslim in an environment that despises the very essence of your identity, of the sexism that women face no matter how much equality and empowerment we seek in any community, of the severity of one's youthful decisions, played out not in one's neighborhood or at school, but in the context of international intrigue, national security, and political prisoners.
For some Muslims in the West - the privileged ones - Layla M. might feel overdone, overly dramatic, and completely ridiculous. For others amongst us, it might feel far too much like taking a look into what-might-have-been if we too had acted upon our own brash desires and convictions of universal truths. But for all viewers, Layla M. is a brilliantly crafted movie, one which is a meaningful contribution to the sparse selection of Muslim-relevant films.
In truth, nothing I say in this review can actually encapsulate what an emotional rollercoaster this movie was for me. Waking up from delusions of grandiose saving-the-Ummah daydreams is brutal, and while my own awakening was very different (marriage to someone who was decidedly not jihadi, promptly isolated and impregnated, and then eventually getting the hell out before finally living my own real life), there is always a part of me that remembers all too well what it was like to be a teenaged girl with such fantasies. And that part of me needed to see Layla M., as the closure that I never knew I needed.