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Review: ‘Hala’ — a culturally specific tale with universal appeal

Geraldine Viswanathan and Jack Kilmer in the movie ‘Hala’
Geraldine Viswanathan and Jack Kilmer in the movie “Hala.”
(AppleTV+)

A straightforward film about people we rarely get movies about, “Hala” is writer-director Minhal Baig’s sincerely dramatized evocation of a Muslim teenager’s evolving relationship with her Pakistani American immigrant parents. Although its storytelling is at times naggingly staid, its central characterizations teem with complexity and sensitivity, and for that, it’s a modest coming-of-age gem.

At the heart of this story is the title figure, played by Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”), a 17-year-old high schooler introduced to us in a tastefully angled, hushed moment of private bathtub exploration as a way of signifying to us just how personal her journey is, and perhaps how alone she might feel because of its unspokenness.

We get a sense of how much of a household sticking point Hala’s hyphenated identity is when we meet her parents — Eram (Purbi Joshi), a tradition-minded housewife, and Zahid (Azad Khan), a high-powered lawyer — and mom chastises Hala for skipping her morning prayers, while dad’s collegial vibe toward their Americanized daughter sends the message that such an omission is hardly a federal case.

While Zahid and Hala share a jovial, assimilative bond marked by conversations about literature, doing crosswords and conversing in English, Hala’s relationship with Eram is marked by mutual suspicion — mom sees an ungrateful rebel, daughter sees a controlling monitor envious of her camaraderie with dad. After a tense moment in a clothing store when Hala — who already dresses conservatively enough according to her religion — refuses to try on a thick, form-flattening man’s button-down shirt, her embittered mom puts their divide in stark terms, “If you were in Pakistan, you wouldn’t be like this.”

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Outside of home, Hala revels in normal teenage expression and exploration. She loves skateboarding, has girlfriends and as a budding writer enjoys the opportunity to read aloud from her journal in English class, even if her high-minded prose — clearly reflective of what’s roiling inside of her, and praised by her supportive teacher (Gabriel Luna) — meets with a few snickers from the usual troublemakers.

She also carries an abiding crush on classmate and fellow skateboarder Jesse (Jack Kilmer), an inquisitive, poetry-loving soul. They begin a budding friendship that comes with the promise of something more intimate, and while this gives Hala the opportunity to answer the call of her desires, it also portends trouble at home when her parents learn about it.

Baig’s personal connection to the material — it’s inspired by her own adolescent road to self-discovery in a Pakistani American household — is on one level an obvious plus. But there’s also a stylistic respectfulness to her and cinematographer Carolina Costa’s visual approach that can feel a little dry, and a fondness for thematic signposts — an ongoing discussion of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and skateboarding as a metaphor for balance and freedom — that plays a little too on-the-nose.

But what’s winning and wise about Baig’s movie are the narrative’s emotional contours, particularly how the drama between Hala and her parents plays out, which is made all the more vivid by the performances — Viswanathan especially offers up a magnetic mix of darkness and light, and how both seem equally manifest in her charmingly crooked smile.

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What begins with a few surprise revelations about mom and dad that upend Hala’s assumptions, and fractures further in the wake of their fundamentalist response to her acting out, eventually wends its way toward a newfound understanding of this tight, tense family unit. Hala truly is the product of her parents’ outward projections, but also their hidden feelings, which makes Baig’s film an immigrant saga as true as any, but also a wonderfully universal one without needing to sacrifice any of its cultural specificity.

'Hala'
Rated: R, for a scene of sexuality

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 22, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica


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