Geraldine Viswanathan gives a breakout performance as an American Muslim teenager balancing her relationship with her protective Pakistani immigrant parents and her own independent desires, in Minhal Baig’s honest, touching, and assured coming-of-age drama.
This breathtakingly assured feature from US writer-director Minhal Baig is about a teenager desperately searching for herself while straddling two very different worlds.
The only child of Pakistani immigrants to the US, Hala (TIFF '19 Rising Star Geraldine Viswanathan) finds herself poised on the precipice of womanhood with no safety net in sight. Hala's mother seems stiflingly traditional and overprotective, while her father seems more comfortable with a progressive world, encouraging Hala's education and conversing with her in English instead of Urdu. The one matter on which both parents agree, however, is boys: Hala should have nothing to do with them until the time comes for her to enter into an arranged marriage.
Yet Hala is hopelessly drawn to Jesse (Jack Kilmer), a classmate who shares her passion for skateboarding and literature. The two begin secretly meeting and Hala rapidly runs out of convincing alibis. The more Hala's domestic life and social life clash, the more she begins to see her parents' roles reverse — to the point where Hala discovers that she and her mother may just be able to empower each other.
Baig's maturity as a director is most evident in subtlety: her spare and elegant frames and the ease with which her characters move through them; the muted colour palette that fosters a sense of intimacy in scenes both tender and bracing. The performance Baig draws from Viswanathan is a thing of quiet beauty, awash in vulnerability and wonder. "Hala" means "halo" in Arabic, and while Baig's heroine is no angel, she approaches her dilemma with something that can best be described as grace.