A coming-of-age tale, a compelling directorial debut, and a slight corrective regarding both teen movies and the American Muslim experience, writer-director Minhal Baig’s Hala opens with the sound of du’a voiced over a shot of an empty room. Then it introduces its title character (played by Blockers’ standout Geraldine Viswanathan) taking a bath and in the middle of a very intimate physical moment. A knock on the door interrupts her endeavor — her mother wants to know why she missed morning prayers — and boom, the thrill is gone.
The juxtaposition isn’t meant to be shocking, or titillating, or even particularly in-your-face subversive. Rather, the movie wants to quickly give you a sense of the internal tug-of-war its heroine is dealing with as she navigates the already fraught terrain of teendom. Hala is devout, bonds with her lawyer dad over crossword puzzles (Mom is a different, far more contentious story), wears a hijab to gym class, and knows that her Pakistani parents expect her to marry “a good Muslim man.” She also loves skateboarding, wants to be a writer, and is seriously lusting after the lean blond boy (Jack Kilmer) in her English lit class. It’s her first-generation family’s traditionalism versus follow-your-bliss freedom, the spiritual versus the carnal. It’s a typical portrait of that transitional moment between childhood and adulthood, and when the burden of expectations butts up against a future that could be yours to shape as you wish.
And while male coming-of-age movies still far outweigh their female counterparts — a gap that Hala helps move one inch closer to being bridged — it’s also a tale we’ve heard several times before, and one that you can’t help anticipating which curves to lean into and when. There’s the ecstasy of young love and the agony of bad, though, thankfully, not horrifically traumatic first sex. Innocence is lost in various ways, from the revelation of a moral hero as a hypocrite to a domino effect of poor decisions that results in a catastrophic consequence. The background sound of a radio news report on American immigrants works as a subtle indication of the less-than-ideal world Hala lives in while dealing with hormones and growing pains. A character name-checking Nabokov and then later having that reference take on a certain irony, however, is a reminder that just because something is clever, it doesn’t mean it necessarily works.
What makes Hala feel like a cut above other I Guess This Is Growing Up 101 movies, however, are the two women at the center of it. The Chicago-born Baig has already distinguished herself via her shorts (including the 2016 one that served as a trial run for this story); she was part of the original writing team behind Hulu’s groundbreaking Ramy and penned one of its best episodes, about a drug experiment gone awry. She’s gone on record as saying her feature debut is drawn from her own teen years, and there’s a sense that you’re watching someone translate their specific personal experience into something universal in the best possible way. Baig knows how to use a camera to make small moments feel significant or earthshaking; watch how she slowly reframes Hala and her dad during a shift in their conversation (and later gingerly follows her lead during a seriously bad move). It’s an understanding of how to use the medium expressively without being bells-and-whistles showy. It’s the mark of someone who knows how form connects with content.
And then there’s Viswanathan, the young Australian actor who’s already proven to be a clutch ensemble player (Blockers, the upcoming Bad Education), and someone with killer deadpan-comic timing (the TBS series Miracle Workers). The way she deftly moves through Hala’s emotional register and mood swings — a hodgepodge of longing, anger, excitement, frustration, disappointment, and run-of-the-mill adolescent mortification — sells this young woman as more than a vessel for a filmmaker’s former inner monologues. She can deploy a wide-eyed reaction shot for any number of occasions. No one has ever chomped down on a non-Halal cheeseburger and communicated rebellious, reckless abandon so wonderfully. Baig could not have asked for a finer avatar to smooth out the narrative bumps, and their dual portrait of a young lady on the verge of independence feels like more than just a journal entry made manifest. It’s a quietly radical take on the art of finding one’s voice, playing out both in front of and behind the lens.