Apple TV+ film review: Hala
James R | On 01, Feb 2020
Director: Minhal Baig
Cast: Geraldine Viswanathan, Purbi Joshi, Azad Khan
Watch Hala online in the UK: Apple TV+
Meet Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan). She’s just like any other 17-year-old girl: she goes to school, doesn’t get on with her parents and she‘s trying to work out what she wants in a boyfriend. She’s also Muslim, and trying to reconcile all that purported normality with the expectations of her cultural and religious traditions. Hala’s strength comes from the way it doesn’t try to answer all of those expectations with a universal, sweeping statement about Muslim identity, but instead focuses on one character’s journey with a refreshing level of nuance.
That might not seem the case from the opening minutes, which see Hala indulging in a private moment in the bathroom, causing her to miss prayers – and sparking consternation from her strict, conservative parents. The result appears to be a familiar story of finding one’s identity through freedom from the shackles of religious tradition, but over the course of Hala’s light (often funny) but thoughtful drama, what emerges is a study of identity through family, of breaking free through connections and empathy with others.
That’s primarily achieved through the film’s sensitive depiction of her parents, who gradually become fleshed-out characters. Hala’s father, Zahid (Azad Khan), initially is the laidback, progressive one, happy for her to help with the crossword and not being too judgemental of her behaviour. Her mother, Eram (Purbi Joshi), meanwhile, tells her off for skateboarding.
But as Hala begins to explore her sexuality – and her bond with classmate Jesse (Jack Kilmer), a white teen who doesn’t understand the moral and cultural complexities Hala must constantly juggle – we see her parents move away from those conventional roles. The more she grows up, the less her father is perceived as a hero. The more she sees of her mother, the more she understands the pressures, disappointments and injuries she has had to bear.
It’s a delicate and subtle shift in their portrayals, and it’s one that writer-director Minhal Baig roots in Hala’s viewpoint. Indeed, this is a story that grounds itself in specifics, from Hala’s mistakes and intimate encounters to her growing realisation that one can learn from said mistakes and respond appropriately. Whether or not to wear a hijab isn’t necessarily a permanent, life-defining act, but a decision that can change from one moment to the next, as Hala tries to find herself and work out her boundaries of comfort. It’s a tale of someone growing to know that they don’t have to take or reject a prepackaged role given to them by others – right down to navigating the privileges her life inherently contains, or choosing when to speak in Urdu or English (her parents, in a nice touch, speak Urdu when addressing each other).
Geraldine Viswanathan delivers a star-making performance throughout, building on her breakout turn in Blockers. She manages to be vulnerable, tough, smart and stupid often in the same scene or all at once; she’s as natural and convincing when reading poetry in the countryside as when she’s trying, awkwardly, to manage communication between school teachers and her mum. Joshi and Khan do excellent work too, with Joshi’s increasingly three-dimensional presence both moving and rewarding. The trio’s chemistry is echoed by the naturalistic cinematography from Carolina Costa, while Mandy Hoffman’s poetic soundtrack ensures that things end on a positive note of hope.
The result is a quietly personal coming-of-age story that realises the cultural stereotypes and expectations come from audiences as well as characters, and deftly shrugs them off to tell its own story instead.
Hala is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.