In the film, Abu Laila (Mohammed Bakri) goes through a typical day at his job as a taxi driver, though this day is not so typical. It is his daughter's birthday and he must return home that night with a gift, a cake and candles to celebrate.
The day starts with Abu Laila going to meet the new head of justice to see about getting his job back as a judge. For reasons not entirely understood, Abu Laila lost his position as a job, but while you can take the man out of the law, you can't take the law out of the man.
But the reality is that Abu Laila's world is surreal and order is almost nowhere to be found. His customers are difficult and there is no such thing as a straight-forward ride from point A to point B. He must explain to riders that he won't drive to checkpoints or drive around a couple only looking for a private place to make out. In addition to a typical "No Smoking," Abu Laila's cab is fixed with a "NO AK-47s" sign, since apparently this comes up a lot.
One man, an ex-convict, leaves his phone in Abu Laila's cab, sending him on a goose-hunt to return the phone. In between, there is a bombing and his taxi is used to transport the wounded to the hospital. The bombing is the final straw, sending Abu Laila into a state of shock.
In the film's climax, Abu Laila, fed up with the chaos of his life, grabs a police megaphone and starts yelling at people in the streets, cars honking and even Israeli helicopters flying overhead. His message is that he wants people to take control of lives and assume responsibility for their action, and to Israel, he wants Palestine to be left alone so they can start making sense of their life and actually develop a sense of order.
By the time Abu Laila is parked outside his house at the end of the day, it is dark and finally quiet. It is now that he discovers a cake left behind in his taxi and remembers some candles he bought for a customer but forgot to give him. And then there is the cheap necklace he purchased from a street peddler to leave him alone. Yes, it is a bit unbelievable that everything worked out that well for this distressed man, but the symbolism built here is promising.
Despite the chaos and absurdity of the everyday routine in Ramallah, people find a way to get through life one day at a time and find a way to survive.
Survival is a common theme in Palestinian culture, since for many people, just finding a way to get by and move on to the next day is a struggle. This tenacity is a defining characteristic of many Palestinian films.
So aside from the rude customers, incomprehensible red tape, and daily bombings that plague Abu Laila, Laila's Birthday is ultimately an optimistic story about the desire to survive and be happy against all odds.