Director Minhal Baig‘s Hala opens with the film’s teenage Pakistani- American namesake (Geraldine Viswanathan) skateboarding, completing crosswords with her father, and later touching herself in bed. The scenes ingratiate the audience into a world that is, initially, not too dissimilar from theirs, whether Muslim or not. American cinema has long lacked a Muslim perspective, and Baig, in her ode to teenage love, sexual freedom, and parental malfeasance reveals a voice that Hollywood has largely and unduly ignored.
Hala’s relationship with her parents is more than the over-domineering mother/father against their rebellious teenage daughter trope. For fear gossip will spread among their community, her father and mother are watchful, they ensure she doesn’t stay out late and isn’t seen with boys. The added complexity of Hala’s religion, and her parents’ insistence that she not embrace the Westernized culture she’s been raised in, unlocks the nuance between filial duty and autonomous love.
As Hala, Viswanathan delivers an innately quiet performance. She transforms herself from the hilarious daughter of John Cena’s Blockers, to the measured and conflicted only child of Pakistani immigrants here. Her performance is self-contained, wrapped in an impenetrable hue, while displaying unguarded emotions.
Playing her father is relative newcomer Azad Khan, who’s character — fluent in English — appears to be carefree, finding common ground with his daughter as they decipher crossword puzzles. Hala’s mother, Eram (Purbi Joshi), rarely speaks English during the film and is considered the more nitpicky of the two. While Hala’s father is a college-educated lawyer, her mother is a stay-at-home housewife.
Thankfully, Baig’s semi-autobiographical narrative doesn’t remain in this dichotomy for its entirety, instead, her screenplay subverts well-worn tropes and cliches. Her film not only becomes a choice between religious reverence and personal love, but also a story of a once strained mother and daughter finding strength in each other.
Hala’s parental allegiances flip when she becomes involved with the direct opposite of her culture: Jesse (Jack Kilmer), a blond White American teenager. Both share an infatuation with poetry and writing. Their dating eventually leads Hala to an unnerving discovery about one of her parents.
Her relationship with her mother and father, and Jesse, reveal a girl who occupies two cultural extremes. Baig’s film balances best when it’s exploring all the ways Hala is like your average high school girl —the same curiosities, desires, and interests (nail polish, boys, and skateboarding) —while demonstrating how much of an outsider she is — encompassed by a duty to religion and family.
Baig’s narrative is sometimes too on-the-nose, with Hala and Jesse trading poetic verses while they walk down sun-drenched paths. The effect, while evoking teenage love, becomes more contrived with each usage. Instead, it’s
Viswanathan and Kilmer’s easy chemistry that adds a naturalistic fervor to their relationship.
Her script also suffers from the needless subplot of Hala’s attraction to her hunk of an English teacher, Mr. Lawrence (Gabriel Luna). The interloping into the teacher’s apartment doesn’t feel altogether believable. Instead, it’s an impulsive and contrived adherence to a drama which the film succeeds without.
Thankfully, Baig’s sharp script isn’t sunk by what amounts to small dents in a subtle and gripping coming-of-age story.
Her film, instead, recovers to the same level of fraught and elusive loyalty to religion, love, and family that caused us to initially fall in love with her sincere film. Baig provides a Muslim perspective, fitted in a touching coming-of-age story, that balances the familiar with the foreign to pull for a girl whose strength of freedom is at once powerful and quiet.