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‘Hala’: Film Review | Sundance 2019

A thoughtful Pakistani-American Muslim girl nearing high-school graduation grapples with sexuality, faith and tradition in this feature debut from Minhal Baig.

The debut feature Hala from writer-director Minhal Baig offers up a story that’s rarely told onscreen: A thoughtful Pakistani-American Muslim girl nearing high school graduation grapples with sexuality, faith and tradition under the watchful eye of her conservative immigrant parents, Zahid (Azad Khan) and Eram (Purbi Joshi).

The titular character, Hala (Blockers breakout Geraldine Viswanathan), is a star student who loves to read and write. She is “intense” as Jesse (Jack Kilmer) — her  blond, blue-eyed love interest — describes her, but she’s far from a stereotypical devout Muslim teen: She recites Anne Carson poems, skateboards and masturbates with an adolescent’s curiosity. In the context of films like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade the last few years, it’s significant that a character like Hala enters into the ever-expanding catalogue of teenage girl coming-of-age dramas.

Interestingly enough, in late 2018 there was another coming-of-age indie about a Muslim girl with a fondness for poetry exploring the boundaries of sex, faith and family, the 2018 SXSW-awarded debut film Jinn by writer-director Nijla Mu’min. It featured a black girl named Summer, who, like Hala, makes some confusing sexual decisions in the third act. 

Hala shines brightest when Baig leans into the spare, carefully constructed frames that make the film, which is based on a 2016 short of the same name, visually sing. The first half is full of pauses where we stay with Hala’s facial expressions for extended beats. Clearly aware of the harmful portrayals of Muslim women in cinematic history that — like it or not — her film has to contend with, Baig is effective in helping viewers push past who we might think Hala is to meet her with fresh eyes in the present.

A big part of this is the artful choices that Baig and her cinematographer, newcomer Carolina Costa, make with camera movement. The first time we see Hala in English class, reading a poignant excerpt from her personal journal aloud, the frame starts with her blue nail polish and pedestals up in close. Her nails give way to modest clothing that’s still youthful, an understated hijab. Hala is what a modern American Muslim girl looks like.

Unfortunately, the touches that endear us to Hala during the first half of the film are almost nonexistent in its second half, adding up to a choppy, incoherent finish.

This is especially true when it comes to Hala and her father Zahid, a successful lawyer. In the beginning, they share a special bond over crossword puzzles that instantly vanishes once he learns she’s spending time with male classmates and lying about it. He then begins behaving like a brute, slapping Hala so hard she goes to school with a black eye that prompts her teacher to ask if everything is okay at home.

At the same time, Hala also learns a weighty secret about her parents’ marriage that permanently spoils her image of her father. The shift in Zahid and his relationship with Hala is jarring. Sure, maybe father and daughter wouldn’t have reconciled given the gulf that emerges between them, but it seems like they both simply give up on each other without a second thought, as if their bond in the first part of the movie has been a ploy to justify Hala’s eventual embrace of her overprotective mother, whom the film rightly wants to humanize at all costs.

This pattern continues when Hala ends up at her favorite teacher’s home one night after a dramatic exit from a dinner with her parents’ friends, where she learns she’s being introduced to a potential husband. Hala asks to stay overnight at her teacher’s house, which he immediately turns down, but after she insists she has nowhere to go, he gives her the couch. She later enters his bedroom and makes a move, which he firmly rebuffs. That Hala would do this seems totally out of character, and there purely for shock value to communicate her desperation to be free from her parents. But in going with a plot point that simply doesn’t track with who we’ve been told Hala is up to this point, the movie backs itself into a corner it has a hard time emerging from. The kind of girl who makes a move on her teacher seems like the kind of girl who could at the very least ask her father what his deal is. 

At the end of the film, we see Hala on a prayer mat reverently practicing her Muslim faith right after moving into her college dorm room, but we’re not really sure why. Ironically, Baig — a well-spoken and insightful advocate for greater inclusion of women filmmakers in Hollywood — has made a film in which it’s easy to end up empathizing more with the male characters (the kind boyfriend Hala hastily ghosts, as well as her teacher) than Hala herself.

That said, a first feature should take bold swings and establish a filmmaker’s point of view, and Baig undoubtedly does enough of that to spark curiosity about what she makes next.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production company: Overbrook Entertainment
Cast: Geraldine Viswanathan, Azad Khan, Purbi Joshi, Jack Kilmer,
 Gabriel Luna,
 Taylor Blim, and Anna Chlumsky
Writer-Director: Minhal Baig
Executive Producers: Jana Babatunde-Bey, Jada Pinkett Smith, Caleeb Pinkett, Ari Lubet, Aaron Carr, Marsha L. Swinton
Producers: Clarence Hammond, Jamal Watson
Director of photography: Carolina Costa
Production Designer: Sue Tebbutt
Editor: Saela Davis
Music By: Mandy Hoffman
Casting: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Endeavor Content

93 minutes

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