Hala is a film so precious and poignant that I’ve been afraid to write about it. The pressure upon creators of color to please all people of that group when creating art about it is immense, and when I saw Hala at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, one of the first questions to filmmaker Minhal Baig was about the film’s presentation of a Muslim family. A loving-but-strict father. A misunderstood mother. A yearning-for-difference daughter. The person asking the question was criticizing Baig for what they thought was a stereotypical depiction of a Muslim family, and I remember thinking, “How nice of an adolescence that person must have had, if they never struggled with any of this.”
Because I found Hala to be so full of feeling and nuance, and I can’t imagine sitting through this film and thinking that it shortchanges anyone’s emotions or undermines anyone’s experiences. Hala touched a part of my heart that I’ve been frightened of sharing, and I’ve kept myself from writing this review for three months because of that fear. That’s my mistake, because Hala is one of the most lovely films I’ve seen this year and one of the most insightful coming-of-age films I’ve seen, ever. If it’s a priority for you to see films made by and about women, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t seek out Hala.
Baig (who wrote for BoJack Horseman and Ramy) wrote and directed Hala, which focuses on the high school senior (Geraldine Viswanathan, of Blockers) who lives with her parents Zahid (Azad Khan) and Eram (Purbi Joshi). A lawyer, Zahid works long hours and travels often for work, while Eram is a stay-at-home mother who is responsible for the day-to-day running of their household—making sure Hala is ready for school, preparing dinner, ensuring that Hala prays and wears outfits that don’t show too much of her body. Closer to her father than her mother, Hala is both a young woman curious about boys, dating, and sex (the film opens with her attempt to masturbate in the bathtub) and a daughter attempting to be a dutiful Muslim (we see her praying each night before bed).
At school, Hala is passionate about her English class, where she recites poetry that is often caught up in themes of regret and longing; her standout work is encouraged by Mr. Lawrence (Gabriel Luna, of Terminator: Dark Fate) and noticed by classmate Jesse (Jack Kilmer), whose shaggy blond hair and skateboard are like kryptonite for Hala. He’s cute, yes, but he also sees Hala in a way that she’s not sure her parents do. Her father is playful and loving, but nearly fanatical in his no-boys rule; her mother tries to be close to her, but nearly every one of their interactions is affected by judgment on both sides. When Hala’s father tells her of her mother, “She had a whole life before she met, before she had you,” it’s a revelation that Hala never considered—that her parents could be different people from whom she knows. And that realization, and how it affects Hala’s relationship with her parents going forward, shapes the rest of the film.
Like any coming-of-age story, Hala has certain recognizable plot points—the first crush and hidden rendezvous, whispered sex talk with girlfriends, fights with parents about certain post-high school expectations. Of course the film puts a certain spin on them that is unique to Hala’s experience as a Pakistani-American young woman and as a Muslim, but what I found particularly thoughtful about the film is how its rejects any absolutism in its character presentations or motivations. Hala makes mistakes—some of them shockingly awful ones, including one that is perhaps irredeemable—not because she is confused about her Muslim faith but because she’s confused about everything, which is what being a teenager is. Viswanathan is really great here, dialing back from her Blockers performance for something quieter but steelier, with some final moments that bring to mind the ending of Lady Bird, and the acceptance of stepping away from a certain part of your life without abandoning it. Meanwhile, Hala’s parents, at first glance, do fall into a typical dominant father/subservient mother dynamic, but the movie shades in how each of them is worthy of both our empathy and our anger. Eram and Zahid are trying to do the best they can, and just like Hala, they don’t always do the right thing. They sometimes put their own desires before each other’s, or before their daughter’s. They’re people, like anyone else. And how Hala allows its characters to navigate that messiness—how the film refuses to align itself with black and white presentations of “good” and “bad”—is intentional and commendable.
Stepping back from Hala, should we have a conversation about how the current trend in films and TV series created by Muslim, often first-generation Americans is about the struggle to balance those two identities, as if one can’t be both? Sure; that’s a question worth considering when it comes to The Big Sick or Ramy or Master of None. (And, if you want to go broader, about most first-generation stories like The Farewell and The Namesake, or immigrant stories like Brooklyn.) But the unifying feature of most of these is that they are based on the creators’ own experiences, on elements of real lives that have been lived, and I can appreciate the honesty and open-heartedness that goes into telling all these stories, and of how they ask for patience and compassion. When Hala talks about her wish to “dissolve the lines between your internal and external worlds,” the film makes clear that such a desire lives in all of us—to understand yourself, and to have others love you for that understanding. I can’t think of anything more human than that.
Hala screened as part of the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and is currently available streaming on Apple TV+.
Image sources (in order of posting): AppleTV+, AppleTV+, AppleTV+