A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Joy, in German with English subtitles, and not to be confused with the 2015 Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, looks at exploitation of young female immigrants from Nigeria who have been coerced into the sex trade in Vienna. While there's no onscreen violence, nudity, or sex, these, plus paralyzing poverty, are all the subject of the movie. Even religious leaders in Nigeria are in on the take as they send innocent girls to Europe after elaborate juju ceremonies that persuade girls that spirits will punish them and their families if they don't pay their debts and cooperate when they become prostitutes and virtual slaves. An uncooperative newbie is taken into a room and raped by two men to teach her that she has no alternative but to do as she is told. Nothing is seen but her cries are heard. A voodoo priest breaks the neck off a chicken (off screen) and uses its blood to perform a religious ceremony. A girl's mother tells her to "sleep with more men" so the girl can send more money home to her parents. A madam recounts how back when she was a young prostitute, she was raped and stabbed. A prospective john says he doesn't want to have sex with any "blackie" prostitutes. Madams gather to inspect and bid on new girls fresh from Africa. A prostitute is beaten and raped by several johns, offscreen. She can't be taken to the hospital for treatment because she is an illegal alien. "F--k" is used.
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What's the story?
JOY (Anwulika Alphonsus) is a Nigerian woman who was sent as a teen by her family to become a prostitute in Vienna. A Nigerian madam (Angela Elkeme) runs her house full of girls and women, each of whom is responsible for paying up a certain amount of money per night's work in the repayment of a debt to the madam. The girls are rounded up in Nigeria with the approval of mothers and fathers, who expect the girls to send them money once they start earning. Nigerian human traffickers put up the funds for travel and false papers, then sell the girls to the highest bidding madam in different European cities. The madams look the girls over as if they were prize cattle. After many years of dutifully obeying her madam's rules, Joy has nearly paid off her debt. Because she's so experienced, her madam puts her in charge of breaking in a new girl named Precious (Mariam Sanusi), an innocent who somehow didn't understand exactly what having sex for money would entail. The madam angrily explains to Joy that if she doesn't whip Precious into shape, Joy will have to pay Precious' debt in addition to her own. Joy has her own troubles -- she has a daughter she supports but rarely sees, a father who claims to have kidney disease and wants money for treatment, and a married boyfriend willing to support her but only if she agrees to stop sending money home to her family. Plus, Austrian authorities are pressing her to testify against her madam, but without any guarantee that she'll receive a legal visa or working papers in return. Joy has instincts toward decency, but she's also a survivor. While she empathizes with the new girl who can't adjust to her indentured servitude, she can't risk helping her or even trusting her. Joy's family is her first priority so she can't do anything to risk her daughter's safety and her ability to help her parents back home.
Is it any good?
This is a movie that's sometimes hard to watch. Joy won Best Film award at the 2018 London Film Festival, and certainly Alphonsus is good as a pragmatic woman dealing with her distasteful world just as it is -- as created by director Sudabeth Mortezai -- rather than how she wishes it would be. What's commendable is the way he director decided to make a film about sexual exploitation without capitalizing on the exploitation by showing the actors naked or having actual sex. The movie does a great job of outlining the horrors of human trafficking and its physical and psychological toll, as well as setting up Joy's moral dilemmas. Especially galling is the hypocrisy of authorities who want Joy to help them put away a criminal but who don't care about the danger it will put Joy in.
However, in constant survival mode, Joy is expressionless and emotionless through most of the film. Like the family that sent her to become a prostitute, her moral compass is compromised. Without much of a plot to make sense of the dark world presented here, there isn't much for an audience to do but simply accept the darkness. There's some confusion as to which character the story focuses on and the film can be maddeningly vague at times. A scene in Africa seems to depict men throwing money, or perhaps fake money, at female dancers. Why? We don't know. Why linger on this for so long? We don’t know. To the degree that older teens might find this of interest, the slow pace will be off-putting and the meandering quality of many scenes will make this feel like a long, unrewarding slog.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how desperate poor Nigerian families must be if they're willing to send their teenaged daughters to Europe to earn money as prostitutes. Why do you think this problem isn't being publicized more?
The girls and their families agree to pay back the approximately $60,000 it takes to send the girls to Europe with false papers. Why do you think law enforcement in both countries isn't stopping such human trafficking?
Does this movie present this situation believably? What might you change about the movie to make it more meaningful to American audiences?
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