HALA -Review by Loren King

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Writer-director Minhal Baig’s feature debut is anchored by a heroine unique enough to catch attention and complex and engaging enough to hold it. Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan) is a 17-year-old high senior in the Chicago suburbs going through the usual coming of age tribulations: there’s college, sex, love, identity and breaking away from strict parental control. But as a Pakistani American Muslim who wears her hijab while skateboarding and appreciates literature such as Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” with a clear and understated eloquence, Hala is a character we’ve rarely seen on screen.

The specificity and sensitivity with which Baig crafts Hala’s fairly ordinary story gives this modest coming of age film some real heft. There are familiar sensitive-teen struggles — Baig apparently based the story on her own experiences — such as Hala reading her heartfelt compositions aloud in class to the encouragement of a kind teacher (“Blinded By the Light” had a similar moment). Like that film, Hala is an immigrant and culture clash story, with Hala understanding her parents’ old ways and their sacrifices as much as she needs to rebel from them, clashing with her parents who expect her to say her morning prayers and marry “a nice Muslim boy.” But the film is so honest and low key that delivers these scene with a refreshing simplicity. It helps that Viswanathan is a performer of both strength and delicacy; this is one of the most realistic depictions of a smart, perceptive 17-year-old girl grappling with sexual awakening to come along in a while.
Despite her parents’ well-meaning plans for her, Hala develops a relationship with fellow skateboarder Jesse (Jack Kilmer). Their discussions about poetry and their eventual, inevitable sexual encounter are tender and powerful thanks to Baig’s realistic rendering. The script is sometimes predictable, but the film delivers a universal story because it is so culturally and emotionally specific. Hala is a lovely, important and unforgettable character that it makes one eager to hear more from Baig.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hala is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for November 29, 2019

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).