Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy is a bleak and provocative film exploring the harsh realities of the sex trade.
There’s nothing glamorous about Austrian-Iranian filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai’s Joy, which debuted on Netflix today. A bleak and sobering glimpse into the grim underworld of sex trafficking, it’s a provocative and artful film, with a compelling character study at its heart and a deep, roiling sadness in its guts. But it’ll probably be a tough sit for general audiences who aren’t as taken with its aesthetic techniques and the possibly all-too-real story it wants to tell.
That story concerns the titular Joy, played somewhat amazingly by newcomer Anwulika Alphonsus, a Nigerian woman indebted to a madame (Angela Ekeleme Pius) and trying to settle permanently in Europe. This performance is magnetic and as quietly impressive as any you’ll see, but will obviously go mostly overlooked. But Joy’s warmth and authenticity are riveting, especially once she’s grooming a new Nigerian girl, Precious (Mariam Sanusi, also excellent, and also a non-professional) for prostitution.
The strength of Joy is in the clash of self-preservation and morality; of doing the right thing for oneself or for others. The essential strength of womanhood and the protective pull of motherhood are both present and compelling, enhanced by excellent cinematography and the willingness to let long instances of silence and deliberation speak for themselves. Mortezai’s direction works to highlight the film’s innate contradictions and juxtapositions; a treasure trove of small details for those who like to unpack such things.
For those who don’t, Joy is a tougher sell. The honesty and humanity of its story are universal, but perhaps a bit too low-key to be as engaging as they might have been. As a character study, though, it’s a really good one, with an unsentimental approach and a helping of technical craftsmanship on display throughout. One imagines this is a film that won’t do much for Netflix’s user base, but those in the market for the kind of experience it provides won’t be disappointed by it.