AFI Fest 2019: Hala, by David Bax
Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) loves poetry. She reads it, writes it and recites it to her classmates and her whole world changes when she discovers that her crush, a fellow skateboarder named Jesse (Jack Kilmer), shares her passion. But Hala, the movie in which this all takes place, can’t seem to muster the same passion for poetry, try as it might. Director Minhal Baig’s attempts at cinematic lyricism, all slow motion and pensive strings on the soundtrack, make the movie do nothing so much as lie there on the page.
Hala, a Muslim girl raised by Pakistani parents in an unnamed, autumnal suburban American town, is an academic standout at her school. At home, she has a jovial relationship with her similarly brainy father (Azad Khan) and a testy one with her stern housewife mother (Purbi Joshi). Her budding relationship with Jesse, who is neither Muslim nor Pakistani, causes friction and leads to changes, both expected and unexpected, in her connection to both of her parents.
In Hala’s creative writing class, her supportive teacher (Gabriel Luna) lectures on point of view, something with which Baig’s film has an uneasy relationship. Specificity and its attendant insights pop up in welcome but short-lived spurts. Most of the time, though, Hala is formulaic coming-of-age stuff, a less problematic but also less alive Sixteen Candles.
Hala, much like Iram Haq’s 2017 What Will People Say from Norway, presents the experience of first generation Muslims of Pakistani descent in ways that are disingenuous in reconciling the feelings of the filmmaker with the expectations of the presumed, pre-Westernized audience. Liberal acceptance of religious beliefs is taken for granted, which makes it awkward when the young woman’s parents are roundly condemned for traditional ways of thinking that are rooted in religion. This is where tolerance curdles into condescension, a trap avoided by a deceptively lighter movie like The Big Sick.
It takes far too long but Hala does eventually open up its discussion about religion to include Hala’s mother’s piety. Here, the film displays a feminist take on religion. For the first time in the whole movie, we see a woman practicing Islam for herself, not because she’s bound to a sexist institution. It’s a shame that it takes so long for Baig to get to this place and to illustrate Hala‘s most impactful observation, that the harmful standards under which we’ve long toiled can remain prisons even after we’ve escaped them. By then, the movie has already worn our patience thin.