Elaha review – sex, patriarchy and second-generation identity

<span>Heartfelt … Bayan Layla as Elaha.</span><span>Photograph: ©Kinescope Film</span>
Heartfelt … Bayan Layla as Elaha.Photograph: ©Kinescope Film

There is a heartfelt and courageous performance from 28-year-old Syrian-born, German-based actor Bayan Layla in this drama about sex, patriarchy and second-generation immigrant identity. It is a drama which hits the buttons squarely and efficiently, but might perhaps have played better as a three-part TV drama.

Layla plays Elaha, a young woman of Kurdish family background in a German town (director Milena Aboyan is herself German-based and Armenian-Kurdish). She has finished high school and is now attending classes on how to apply for jobs, picking up skills she uses mainly to help her dad find employment. There seems to be no discussion about university, despite her obvious intelligence. Her mum works hard minding Elaha’s younger sister and disabled kid brother, and Elaha has part-time work at a dry-cleaners; she is saving for her wedding to a local guy from a prosperous family.

But there’s a problem. Elaha isn’t a virgin and is now frantically Googling private clinics who offer pricey and preposterous “hymen reconstruction” procedures – although one doctor explains that not all women have this hymen tissue, and “physical virginity” is a socio-cultural construct. Nevertheless, Elaha finds that her entire extended family go in for this bizarre and paranoid fetish, as a symbol of intact purity. As Elaha says in a rare candid exchange on another subject with her morose dad: “Damage to the herd … is a disgrace to the shepherd.”

Elaha is also having secret meetings with a boy who used to be in her class: a gentle guy with a rather too-good-to-be-true job looking after animals, although interestingly, this isn’t the guy that she is already supposed to have been to bed with. (Elaha’s caring teacher is incidentally also a little bit too good to be true.) There is an ingenious and rather black-comic plot twist involving Elaha’s decision to buy two fake-virginity kits – which dispense ersatz blood at the moment of truth – rather than just the one, but irony and suspense aren’t exactly the film’s style.

This is a sexually candid, seriously intentioned film about what really matters to young women like Elaha, who resent the medieval prejudice against women’s pleasure and women’s freedom, and yet feel there is nothing necessarily dishonest or specious about wanting to honour their parents.

• Elaha is in UK and Irish cinemas from 26 April.