Minhal Baig’s camera gives high school senior Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) plenty of respectful space as the American Muslim teen skateboards to class, writes in her journal, and touches herself in bed at night. Hala’s parents, however, don’t. If there are boys at the skate park, mom Eram (Purbi Joshi) is going to hear about it from the whisper network of gossips who keep their kids in check and connected to their roots back in Karachi. Dad Zahid (Azad Khan) can’t imagine his perfect daughter would do anything else but study and wait for “a good Muslim man,” oblivious to her crush on a blond named Jesse (Jack Kilmer).
Yes, this is another story about kids, parents, and sex, like last year’s comedy “Blockers” which established Australian actress Viswanathan as a breakout new talent. But instead of evading just one over-bearing parent, now she has two, plus the struggle of fighting for autonomy in a devout, realistic drama. Over the course of “Hala,” she shifts allegiance between her lawyer father who sees her as the ideal child, and her housewife mother who sees her Westernized daughter as a chance to correct the choices she wishes she hadn’t made — while resenting that Hala doesn’t appreciate her comparative freedom. “If you were in Pakistan, you wouldn’t be like this,” Eram sighs, with a drop of pride and a bucket of exasperation.
In expanding her 2016 short into a feature, writer-director Baig has made a coming-of-age charmer that’s adamantly ordinary. Her script has the melody of John Hughes and early Amy Heckerling played with a few minor chords. Hala’s parents are stricter than most, but the way their moral authority crumbles feels universal. Her afternoon dates with Jesse could have taken place on “The Brady Bunch.” On one, they recite poetry in a park, hands chastely shoved into pockets; later, they dangle on the playground monkey bars. Like every teen movie, there’s the cliché English class, here led by Gabriel Luna, that heavily underscores the themes of freedom and social stigma. And when Hala sits down to write her college application essay, the prompt asks: “Pick a movie where the protagonist makes a difficult choice.”
Baig observes the small ways Hala doesn’t fit in, like the headscarf she alone wears in the school halls, or the long sweatpants that cover her legs in gym class while the other girls wear shorts. Toward the end of the film, she patiently watches Hala pray in her bedroom as if to say that the teen isn’t struggling with her faith, just the restrictions that come with it. (Devouring on an almost certainly not-Halal fast food hamburger, her personal policy seems to be don’t ask, don’t tell.)
Mostly, though, “Hala” leans back and enjoys its lead’s natural charisma. Viswanathan can do gross-out humor and slapstick, but here she proves her range and, hopefully, longevity. Her Hala is soft-spoken, bilingual, intelligent, and funny. Out with Jesse when she blurts, “You’re really cool!” Viswanathan clamps her mouth shut, widens her eyes, and performs a silent comedy act that had the audience cackling, while feeling completely real.
Baig has a naturalistic touch. Aside for a few orchestral stirrings, the score is so laid-back, you’d think it was mostly silence and crickets, and the one time the cinematography draws attention to itself with a flashy camera movie, it’s just before Hala does something extremely out of character to convince herself she’s a sinner. The director, of course, adores her wholeheartedly, so much that the film drags in its last 10 minutes as though the filmmaker doesn’t want to say goodbye. No wonder “Hala” has so much empathy for the teen and her family — Baig, too, has a practically parental fixation on making sure her heroine turns out just fine.