TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's not unusual for a coming-of-age films to mimic the frenetic, intense emotional swings that come with being a teenager. But "Hala," a new film from writer-director Minhal Baig is decidedly subdued. Baig, who was a writer on "BoJack Horseman" and "Ramy," adapted "Hala" from a short she released in 2016. Critic Soraya Nadia McDonald has this review.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Discovering your parents aren't perfect and that they're actually far more complicated than you ever imagined is never easy to process. But it can feel especially overwhelming when you're 17, like Hala, the protagonist of Minhal Baig's first feature film, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year. It's a film about the generosity daughters rarely extend to our mothers, how we find that generosity and the role identity can play in the process.
Geraldine Viswanathan stars as Hala Masood, a first-generation Pakistani American living in Chicago. Hala wears a hijab, and she loves skateboarding and literature in equal measure. She and her father, who is an attorney, share a bond as the intellectuals of their family. Their relationship can feel sweetly clubbish. Hala's mother is a witness to their discussions of books and their shared crossword puzzle rituals, but she's never a participant. Hala and her father, Zahid, eagerly partake in the delights of Western culture.
But Hala's mother, Eram, occupies the role of conservative spoilsport, confined to the borders of domesticity. Eram's marriage to Zahid was arranged in Pakistan. In America, she clings to tradition and to her native tongue of Urdu, much to Hala's muted disdain. In this scene at the family dinner table, Eram silently sulks. Hala and her father, played by Azad Khan, discuss Hala's schoolwork.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALA")
AZAD KHAN: (As Zahid Masood) So what have you been reading?
GERALDINE VISWANATHAN: (As Hala Masood) We just finished "The Stranger," and now we're reading "A Doll's House," the play by Henrik Ibsen.
KHAN: (As Zahid Masood) Do you get to read "War And Peace?" We had an entire class on that one in college.
VISWANATHAN: (As Hala Masood) Yeah, next semester.
KHAN: (As Zahid Masood) There's more real human experience in that one book than anything else you'll ever read.
VISWANATHAN: (As Hala Masood) I'll tell Tolstoy you said that.
MCDONALD: As Hala, craving more freedom, begins to test boundaries, Eram grows stricter and more suspicious. She interrogates Hala about whether she's been spending time with boys, a huge no-no, and she picks out clothes Hala hates, inspiring ever more ire and resentment in her only child. But then, as Hala's own secret relationship with a white boy at school is blossoming, she discovers a monumental betrayal. Her father is having an affair with a white attorney at his law firm.
What follows is a beautifully nuanced and perceptive portrayal of Hollars anguish and confusion. The film is immensely affecting because Baig captures what it's like to feel paralyzed, with one foot in adulthood and the other in childhood. What I find striking is how Baig conveys what Hala is experiencing when she has so many restrictions on how she can outwardly express her emotions. From the moment the film begins, Hala is faced with a challenge - she's trying to figure out how to balance her nascent sexuality with the expectations of her Pakistani parents and of Islam. As the film progresses, she begins to see her mother in a newer and more compassionate light. Hala starts to appreciate that Eram's provincialism isn't a choice but more of an unwanted prison.
That becomes apparent when the Masood's host a Pakistani couple and their son Arash for dinner. The goal is to make a match. Hala has not been consulted at all, and she barely speaks. Zahid interrupts the dinner table awkwardness by ordering Hala to clear the dishes. Her mother unexpectedly objects. Let the child eat, she says in Urdu. Zahid, we're no longer in a time where women do all the work. We're not living in Pakistan anymore. Overwhelmed Hala runs out and doesn't return until the next day. In this voiceover, we hear Hala's thoughts from her writing journal as she's walking home.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HALA")
VISWANATHAN: (As Hala Masood) I am of two parts devided - one that rushes forward fearlessly, another that questions everything. Stranger and family under the same roof, speaking different languages yet sharing the same blood, seeking to be understood yet talking over each other - a cacophonous sound. That is the head and the heart.
MCDONALD: The film shines with a glorious commitment to the emotional evolution of its female characters, one that James Sizemore's score accents with notes of subtle agony. As Hala is discovering how gender has limited her mother's life and how it ties the two of them together, cinematographer Carolina Costa envelops the two in shadow. But when she leaves home for college, Hala literally gets to step into her own light. Baig backlights her heroine, and we see her in silhouette as sunshine pours into her dorm room. There she gets to decide what she will carry, from her mother and from Islam, as she becomes the woman she wants to be.
GROSS: Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. "Hala" is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.
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