Hala | 2019 Sundance Film Festival Review
A Way with Words: Baig Tests the Limits in Sophomore Feature
Minhal Baig’s sophomore feature is an important film: a winsome coming-of-age story that will give voice to countless adolescents. In many ways, it’s a Muslim-American Ladybird, leaning harder into drama than comedy, with more earnest charisma than indie quirk (although there is a playground scene). Hala starts out predictably, familiar beats with a new sub-culture superimposed on top: lonely girl-meets-boy, parents don’t approve, family drama ensues. Nevertheless, Hala quickly comes into its own, resonant in personal specificity and compelling performances.
Hala played by the magnetic Geraldine Viswanathan (seen as a supporting player in Kay Cannon’s Blockers) is a Muslim-American high school student who never seems to go to any class except English. In her spare time she writes poetry, skateboards, and avoids boys at the behest of her disciplinarian parents. Everything changes, of course, when she finds a kindred spirit in tousled-blond Jesse (Jack Kilmer); their chemistry pours off the screen, and Hala finally feels free. She lies to her good cop/bad cop parents (Purbi Joshi and Azad Khan) about her newfound extracurricular, then discovers—gut-wrenchingly—that they’ve been lying to her too.
Hala is not as heartwarming as you’d expect. Instead, it offers a mature take on the developmental years vaguely reminiscent of Juno (again, minus indie quirks, and pregnancy). Baig and cinematographer Carolina Costa are deliberate in their focus on Hala’s emotions: the camera spends more time on her reaction shots than on any supporting close-ups. The film also relies on poetry to develop her character. Generally, scenes where characters read poetry aloud onscreen are hit-or-miss—there’s rarely enough time to weigh the words and interpret—but in Hala, happily, it helps that the poems turn increasingly specific and personal.
Critics may find fault with the film’s packaged by-the-book set-up. The melodramatic string-score and references to A Doll’s House can feel slightly kitschy, but stick with it—these are the lesser by-products of reinforcing a relatable narrative. Like its eponymous character, Hala grows up as it unfolds: a powerful debut for Baig, it dodges the expected saccharine ending and is bittersweet enough to linger. On a technical level, Hala may not redefine the form, but on social and cultural scales, this film breaks new ground.
Reviewed on January 25th at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – U.S. Dramatic Competition. 94 Minutes