At the start of Sudabeh Mortezai’s downbeat trafficking tragedy “Joy” there’s some reason to think that one is about to see a story of power and independence. A young Nigerian woman sits in the hut of a juju man while he wrings the blood from a chicken’s slashed neck over an altar and leads her in the recitation of charms. “Protect her from the living and the dead,” he says about her upcoming trip to Europe. “No man will harm me!” He has her shout like a young warrior heading off to battle.
But there is no battle and no heroism. The next time we see Joy (Joy Alphonsus)she is standing on a dark street Viennese street, just one of several African sex workers importuning prospective clients up and down the block. Her face is stoic, set hard and resilient. When some drunks initially steer toward her only to have one of them blurt “Not a fucking blackie, man!” it doesn’t even register. She’s come a long way since the juju hut and nothing in Joy’s face says any of it has been good.
As with any movie about sex workers that tries to steer anywhere near the truth, “Joy” is a story of interlocking layers of entrapment. Joy is beholden to the Madame (Angela Ekeleme), an imperiously puffed-up presence who plays the guilt and punishment game with the women she crowds into an apartment and sells on the street until they pay off a €60,000 debt as though doing some grand favor. The price for disobedience is laid out early on when the newest girl, Precious (Precious Mariam Sanusi), resists doing the work and is violently raped by Madame’s enforcers just feet away from Joy.
Precious represents a knotty dilemma for Joy. There is the occasional flicker of compassion in Joy’s otherwise stony countenance when she sees Precious balk at the gut-churning work they have been forced to do. But anything Joy might do to help this wayward semi-adoptee could boomerang right back at her in the form of deportation or having her own actual daughter—whom she pays a woman to essentially raise and so almost never sees—taken away by a wrathful Madame. A possibility of escape is occasionally dangled in front of Joy by an earnest Austrian rights worker who wants her to testify about Madame’s operation but can’t guarantee a visa in exchange and Joy’s long-time client who harbors an unrealistic savior fantasy.
All of this ticks forward at mumblecore speed, with naturalistic performances that verge on the flat and only the occasional nudge of plot. Mortezai’s take on Joy’s entrapment is understandable—Alphonsus barely registers any emotion besides resignation or annoyance in large part because all else has been beaten out of her after years of sexual servitude. (One scene in which other madams gather to inspect and bid for new workers fresh from Africa plays out as a horrifying kind of slave market in which Nigerians buy and sell other Nigerians.)
In its refusal to bend to unrealistic notions of escape, “Joy” is a bravely dark movie. The impenetrable nature of the trap Joy, Precious, and others are in casts a claustrophobic shadow over everything. In this world, even family offers no refuge. Calls from back home come not as protective check-ins but opportunistic guilt-plays for cash from these emotionally starved and mentally ravaged women. If Mortezai could have paired that horrific vision of all-encompassing capitalist exploitation—witness the scene near the end where stone-faced men contemptuously throw worthless paper money at dancers—with a more dramatically cohesive narrative, “Joy” might have been something astounding. As it is, the movie’s message registers with far more power than its characters, who only occasionally flicker to life. [B]