Both riveting character study and experiential glimpse at the Africa-to-Europe sex slave trade, Austrian-Iranian filmmaker Sudabeh Mortezai’s “Joy” builds its reservoir of sadness with pulsing efficiency.
The forced-smile title is the name of Mortezai’s lead character, exceptionally played by newcomer Joy Anwulika Alphonsus. Her magnetic, watchful, yet near-depleted eyes tell this prostitute’s story as heartbreakingly as the documentary-tinged scenes, which start and end in Nigeria, but mostly take place in Austria. Joy is there working off a trafficking debt to her madame (Angela Ekeleme Pius) in order to eventually settle permanently in Europe, while also trying to raise a child and send money back home to family.
The introduction of a new Nigerian girl, Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi, another great debut from a nonprofessional), brings out a jumble of instincts in Joy: protectiveness, exasperation, clear-eyed survival, and as strong a need as ever to find a way out.
The low-key strength in Mortezai’s approach is to fold this portrait of caged-yet-cagey womanhood into a setting just recognizably human enough at times — the sisterhood of laughing about clients, a bordello dance party, the financial kindness of a wealthy john — that the quick slides back into harsh, often violent reality are that much more dispiriting. Mortezai neither sentimentalizes nor judges, but rather empathetically reveals a life that we hope is a straight path with forks, but could turn out to be a closed-off circle.
In Pidgin, English and German with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Available Friday on Netflix