By Celine Cotran | Drama
A Syrian refugee finds a new lease of life when she learns to skateboard.

Layla is a refugee from Syria starting her life over in Margate, England, where she works at a local amusement park. Her life is safe and quiet, and she also cares for her granddaughter Ritaj. But Layla is also lonely and isolated, stranded in a culture that isn’t her own.

But one day on the boardwalk, her attention is captivated by a group of young skateboarders. When one of the skateboarders runs afoul at the park where she works, she seizes the chance to rope him into some lessons — and change her outlook on life.

Directed by Celine Cotran with a script co-written with Oliver Sunley, this rich, uplifting short drama is a lovely character study of a woman starting over in life and learning to find joy once again. Like its titular character, it has patience and calm attention to detail in its storytelling, and a hidden zest for life and experience at its heart.

The cinematography is clear and lovely, capturing Layla’s surroundings with an eye to the world’s ordinary charms and small obstacles. The tonality balances muted realism with bursts of color and even whimsy. This is the balance that Layla navigates in her new life, where she is surrounded by a world that seems drab and difficult.

The film lightly touches upon the difficulty that refugees — or anyone in a new environment, really — can face, separated from their social support system and all that is familiar to them. But the excellent writing and direction keep focused on Layla’s internal experience, and while she faces her challenges with hard work and patience, she feels something is missing.

The splashes of vibrancy in the visuals hint at Layla’s more colorful side, which comes out when she manages to get one of the kids, Femi, to teach her to skateboard after an altercation in the park. The film picks up pace as this bond develops and Layla begins learning to skateboard in earnest. It isn’t an easy process, and she stumbles often just trying to stay balanced.

Actor Wafa Al Shalati plays Layla with a compelling self-containment and quiet intrepidness, evoking the fullness and weight of life experience that an older person carries. But she also beautifully expresses the yearning for more and the hunger for new experiences and brings to life the great spark of curiosity that propels her and the rest of the film forward.

Actor Amir Richards plays well against her, and Femi has his own arc from a teen begrudging his time into someone supporting Layla and investing in her success. When Layla finally manages to hang onto her balance and stays on her skateboard, it’s a heartwarming triumph, for both the characters and the audience.

“Layla” balances its feel-good story and emotions with restrained, balanced artistry and craftsmanship, and its light but honest look at the refugee experience also adds an element of complexity to the emotionally engaging narrative. It’s also a rich character portrait of a seemingly ordinary person doing something ordinary. But through the film’s intimacy and affection, we see just how extraordinary Layla is, and audiences will want to spend more time with this unique, singular person. But more than anything, “Layla” has a winning sincerity, optimism and hope at its core, as well as a belief that people are capable of growth and joy at any age and place — no matter where life takes us or how many years have passed.

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