When audiences first meet Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan), she’s got a skateboard, dark blue nail polish, and a set of headphones on over her hijab. She’s just missed morning prayer–Fajr–because she was in the bathtub, touching herself. Now she’s headed to school, where she’ll read a poem she wrote about fearing the unsaid. We’re just getting to know the titular character, but the camera already captures her with endearing tenderness. Thus, a wholly original teen girl protagonist is born, fully formed and lovingly rendered, out of the mind of writer-director-producer Minhal Baig.
Hala is a little like if Haley Lu Richardson’s character from Kogonada’s Columbus met Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, yet her hopes and anxieties are resoundingly unique and personal to her alone. Introspective yet bristling, curious yet restrained, Hala is both familiar to anyone who’s been a girl teetering on the verge of adulthood, and specific in her experiences as a first generation Pakistani-American Muslim immigrant. In Hala’s eyes, her stay-at-home mother (Purbi Joshi) is overprotective and nagging while her lawyer father (Azad Khan) is benevolent and wise, always ready to share a crossword puzzle and a book recommendation. She soon learns that her parents’ marriage was arranged, and their complicated love story continues to shift even as Hala contemplates romance with her classmate Jesse (Jack Kilmer).
Viswanathan, who stole all her scenes in last year’s Blockers, is terrific as a self-possessed high school senior whose composure is threatened by a series of firsts and changes. Carolina Costa’s crisp cinematography centers Hala whenever possible, revealing the elegance and beauty to which the character, usually reserved and draped in heavy clothing, seems unaware. A swelling, string-heavy score by composer Mandy Hoffman reflects the drama’s emotional tempo. Together, all three elements work in tandem to bring emotional weight to a subgenre–female coming-of-age–which is often overlooked and underestimated. Several subtle but vital supporting actors, including Gabriel Luna and Anna Chlumsky, round out the cast.
The process of growing up is measured in many ways–by tallied off years or rites of passage, changes to interests or new responsibilities. One of the most authentic markers of adulthood, though, is rarely verbalized or celebrated; we grow up when we realize that the people we look up to aren’t perfect and that the world we thought we understood isn’t so simple. More than anything, Hala is about this painful process, the growth which requires self-definition and moral reckoning from someone who isn’t yet fully formed herself. The name Hala, we’re told, means halo, and our protagonist seems to feel an increasing pressure to live up to that name as the list of secrets she’s privy to grows unbearably longer.
We’re so deeply entrenched in Hala’s perspective that at times we literally see the world through her eyes, as when her first sexual encounter is boiled down to a bare shoulder, uncomfortably close. The cinematography is precise and visually arresting, capturing the subjective gravity of a teenage mood shift with a measured middle distance. With Baig’s eye and Costa’s lens, a spinning park toy, encroaching tree branches, and a stranger’s bed can all become tools of perspective, elements of present moments that somehow feel like memories in the making, imprinted with the pre-nostalgia of youth.
Films that incorporate poetry and literature always run the risk of coming across as heavy-handed or commonplace, but Hala uses both and is neither. Hala is reading Henrik Ibsen’s seminal play A Doll’s House for her English class, and the play’s themes ripple through the film. Hala is suffocated by the traditions of her strict family, even as she understands that they come from a place of good intention. Occasionally, Viswanathan reads evocative excerpts from Hala’s diary as voiceover, and the poems and prose flow naturally with the narrative. Both devices teeter at the edge between effectiveness and indie movie cliche, but deft writing and the character’s interiority help the film pull them off.
At one point, Hala writes about her two selves: “one that rushes forward fearlessly, another that questions everything…that is the head and the heart.” These dualities exist in every woman, daughter, adolescent, and member of an immigrant family, but they’re rarely examined as well as they deserve to be on screen. Hala is a gift for its ability to create a holistic coming-of-age arc without sacrificing any nuance for the sake of audience digestibility. Hala’s life is messy and dynamic, and her growth mostly internal, but her story is valuable and powerful all the same. Hala is, above all else, an exquisite exercise in tenderness.
Hala premiered at Sundance and was purchased by Apple. Since the tech giant has only recently started working with acquisitions and original content, it’s currently unclear whether or not the film will receive a theatrical release in addition to likely being available on the upcoming Apple streaming platform. Wherever it goes, Hala is worth seeking out.