×

Sundance Film Review: ‘Hala’

'Blockers' breakout comedy star Geraldine Viswanathan proves she's the real deal in a naturalistic drama about a rebellious Muslim teen.

Director:
Minhal Baig
With:
Geraldine Viswanathan, Jack Kilmer, Gabriel Luna, Purbi Joshi, Azad Khan, Anna Chlumsky.

1 hour 34 minutes

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.

Related: 

Sundance Film Review: 'Hala'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2019. Running time: 94 MIN.

Production: An Endeavor Content presentation of an Overbrook Entertainment production. (Int'l sales: Endeavor, Los Angeles.) Producers: Clarence Hammond, Jamal M. Watson, Minhal Baig. Executive producers: Jada Pinkett Smith, Jana Babatunde-Bey, Marsha L. Swinton, James Lassiter, Caleeb Pinkett, Ari Lubet, Aaron Carr.

Crew: Director, writer: Minhal Baig. Camera (color): Carolina Costa. Editor: Saela Davis. Music: Mandy Hoffman.

With: Geraldine Viswanathan, Jack Kilmer, Gabriel Luna, Purbi Joshi, Azad Khan, Anna Chlumsky.

More Film

  • Rob Schneider'The Week Of' film premiere,

    Film News Roundup: Rob Schneider Wins SAG-AFTRA National Board Seat

    In today’s film news roundup, Rob Schneider wins a SAG-AFTRA board seat; “Badland,” “Sorry We Missed You” and “Extracurricular” find homes; and “The Shawshank Redemption” gets a re-release.  SAG-AFTRA Rob Schneider has won a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Schneider won a four-year term [...]

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

  • Spider-Man Could Leave the Marvel Cinematic

    Spider-Man Could Leave MCU if Disney, Sony Can't Reach Financing Deal

    Disney’s Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures have hit an impasse on new financing terms for upcoming Spider-Man movies, sources have told Variety. If a deal cannot be reached, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will not produce future Spider-Man films, effectively removing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Reps for Disney, Marvel and Sony [...]

  • Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality

    Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality in Film and TV

    Screen Australia, Australia’s federal film and TV funding body, has made sufficient progress in furthering gender equality that it has set more ambitious targets. The organization has exceeded its long-term Gender Matters key performance indicator, with 56% of projects receiving production funding having at least half of the key creative roles occupied by women, based [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content