There have been countless effective coming-of-age dramas that have shed some sentimental light on the rigors of teenage femininity and all its encompassing ties to angst and the overall passage of life in general. Writer-director Minhal Baig (“1 Night”) poetically serves up the emotional landscape for the growing pains of a young Muslim American girl of Pakistani heritage trying to come to grips of navigating her complicated existence in the affecting and soul-searching narrative Hala.
As the titular character in Hala, performer Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) is truly touching as the youthful soul whose love for literary verses cannot overcome her true feelings of the heart threatening to clash with her familial foundation predicated upon cultural expectations. The obstacles for this passionate teen seem insurmountable but Viswanathan’s Hala shares the familiar tug-of-war tendencies that tamper with the entry of womanhood for every young gal that tests the boundaries of elusive love. Baig presents a portrait of a quietly wounded adolescent girl grounded in smarts and determination but also dogged in uncertainty and confusion. Sensitive and unsparing, Hala is a solid character study rooted in its perceptive skin of low-key crisis and contemplation.
Academically gifted, the cerebral-minded Hala does not seem to face the same kind of challenges in the classroom as she does domestically at home. She has an uneven kind of relationship with her Pakistani parents that is considered split in the hot-and-cold mode. Hala does see eye-to-eye with her affable lawyer father (Azad Khan) whose similar cerebral capabilities and good-natured outlook resembles her profile. However, Hala seems to be at odds with her uptight mother (Purbi Joshi) making the household unbearable for the tandem. Being daddy’s little girl and engaging in the obligatory turbulent mother-daughter connection definitely has taken its toll for the intelligent Hala.
The discipline of schooling comes naturally to Hala. However, being schooled in the arena concerning affairs of the heart…well, that is another matter entirely. In particular, Hala has reserved desires for her hunkish English literature classmate Jesse (Jack Kilmer). This does spell disaster for the skateboard-loving, talented writer Hala because the notion of lusting over a non-Muslim suitor is forbidden. Basically, Hala’s life is mapped out for her in the name of selective love and scholarly brilliance. Quite frankly, cozying up to Jesse romantically is frowned upon leading to the slight rebellion thrust on Hala’s shoulders. The price for embracing the cultural and religious differences of Hala’s soulmate Jesse is a heavy one to pay. The chaos concerning Hala’s hormonal preference for her main squeeze will change the course for those involved in such a psychological bind in the confrontational episode of a young girl simply wanting to grasp the normalcy of an American teen exploring her options for personal elation.
Hala is undeniably noteworthy for its handling of a teen girl’s personal truth and inquisitiveness to follow her own path to liberation. Baig conducts an exposition that is beautifully expressive and caring in its commentary on the cutting edge of youth, feminine anxiety, religion, sexual gratification, and familial strife. There is an underlying powerfulness about the motivations of a habib scarf-wearing youngster that yearns to assimilate and not want her traditional family values and faith to tarnish the freedom of her personal preferences. The lead performance by Viswanathan is aptly spry and poignant in a unique kind of teen showcase that resonates soundly in large part to its messaging on diversity and the obligations that persist for the surfacing ambivalence of impressionable young ladies’ preparation for life lessons.
Thought-provoking and lyrical, Hala defines a certain type of referential glow that more teen girl-based dramas should follow with unshakable conviction.
Director: Minhal Baig
Starring: Geraldine Viswanathan, Jack Kilmer, Azad Khan, Purbi Joshi, Gabriel Luna, Anna Chlumsky
Run Time: 94 minutes