The 2008 film I Can’t Think Straight, written by Shamim Sarif as an adaptation of her autobiographical novel of the same name, tells the story of Talla and Layla and how they figure out who they really are. Talla, a confident Palestinian woman whose wealthy family in Jordan has tried to get her married for the fourth time as she ventures off to start her own business, is introduced to Layla, a clumsy, not quite sure of herself Muslim Indian woman living with her parents in England. The two quickly become friends, and their friendship blossoms into a romance.
Both Talla and Layla are portrayed with an intrinsic accuracy when it comes to their sexuality. Talla had experimented previously with women in college while Layla consumes media by and about lesbian women. The two women are constantly fighting against their culture, family, tradition and religion in an effort to express their sexuality. This is not helped by the fact that both, at the time of their relationships start, are both in relationships with men. Because the relationships portrayed in this film are based on the author’s personal experiences, it is natural that the way Talla and Layla come across would reflect the way real lesbians would act. This is reflected both in the way they react to their sexuality as well as to each other.
Frequently, in films in which lesbian characters realize their sexuality, there is very little internal struggle. This results in a journey of self-discovery that rings false. However, in I Can’t Think Straight, both Talla and Layla face the internal struggle of coming to terms with their sexuality and coming out to their respective families. In both cases of coming out, the mother goes into diatribe screaming about what shame the daughter is bringing to the family or how they are going to hell, and yet the fathers seem surprisingly level headed. This spectrum of reaction and divide within families is something that actually happens to many queer people, and as a result gives a reflection of reality that mirrors accurately.
Additionally, what was unique about this film is that no one’s lives stopped for “cute” lesbianism. Politics were still discussed, parties were planned, and nearly every character introduced (of which there are many, including Talla and Layla’s siblings and parents, a family maid, Layla’s boyfriend and so on) had some form of arc in the story that was executed well and allowed for development. The main plot happened, but through skillful storytelling, so did smaller story arcs that only complimented the main story.
What is frustrating about I Can’t Think Straight is the representation of the two lead actresses. Lisa Ray, playing Talla, who is a Palestinian woman living in Jordan, is half Indian and half Polish. Additionally, Lisa Ray is a straight woman. By comparison, Sheetal Sheth is a bisexual Indian woman. While this doesn’t seem to be particularly egregious, Lisa Ray’s experiences as a biracial straight woman of color would be different from a Middle Eastern queer woman. Lisa Ray’s acting is fantastic, however that doesn’t change the fact that there are so few movies with queer women of color as the leads and the fact that Talla could have been played by someone who accurately portrays her race and culture and wasn’t is frustrating.
I Can’t Think Straight is a beautiful film that traces the intersecting issues of race, culture, politics, and sexuality while portraying issues of family and acceptance in a positive light. This film does a beautiful job of accepting cultural thought and crafting a story of love through adversity. Despite its representational faults, I Can’t Think Straight is a gem of a film that will leave you with a smile.