One Way to Be a Muslim Girl in America
The new Apple+ coming-of-age film Hala is best when viewed on its own terms, rather than as a reflection of an entire community.
Hala, the new film from the writer-director Minhal Baig, is a study in contrasts. The coming-of-age story follows its titular protagonist, a Pakistani American teenager played by Geraldine Viswanathan, as she navigates the confusion of adolescence in the United States. The divides she encounters are apparent almost immediately: parents versus classmates; Pakistan versus America; Islamic tenets versus romantic freedom. Hala skateboards to school and writes poetry. She also clashes with her strict mother and father, who chide her relentlessly for any number of activities her white friends speak about with casual disregard.
Movies about teens fighting with their parents are nothing new. But in examining the binaries that 17-year-old Hala confronts, Baig’s film joins a growing group of films and TV shows centered on young Muslim characters in America. Like some prior productions, including Aziz Ansari’s Netflix series Master of None and Kumail Nanjiani’s romantic comedy The Big Sick, Hala has received criticism for featuring yet another protagonist who has a fraught relationship with Islam and who sees her white love interest as one key to self-actualization. Capturing an entire community’s relationship to their religion is a staggering mandate, one that’s impossible for any one production (or two or three) to achieve. As a result, Hala is sharpest when viewed on its own terms—that is, in the way many coming-of-age films about white teens are. The film stands out most for its deft character work with Hala and her parents, especially when it doesn’t treat the trio as case studies for sweeping ideas about Muslim identity.
Many of Baig’s interviews have focused on the dual loyalties her protagonist holds, and on the complexities of simply being a Muslim teen in the U.S. While she notes that some of Hala is based on her own experiences, Baig insists that she didn’t set out to make an autobiographical film or to tell a definitive Muslim story. Still, she took the task of representation seriously. “It was important to show that Hala is not rejecting her faith or her culture. I think it’s really complicated—especially for first-generation Muslim-Americans,” Baig told MTV News a few days after the film’s Sundance premiere. “We’re almost living in two worlds, and we’re trying to reconcile this. Because we live in America, [but] we also have our faith.”
Baig isn’t the first auteur to frame a Muslim story in terms of cultural or intergenerational divides. In a June interview with Deadline, the comedian Ramy Yousseff said his loosely autobiographical Hulu series was “not a first-generation story where you’re watching a kid try to separate themselves from their culture and their parents and erase it. You’re actually watching someone who has a lot of respect for the faith and the tradition, and … is more trying to figure out his place within it, and how he can stay there, while being pulled by his desires and being tested.”
Both Hala and Ramy show their leads attempting to hold onto their faith in ways that feel organic to them. Other stories have taken different approaches: After making “Religion,” a 2017 episode of Master of None in which the young version of his character eats bacon for the first time, Ansari told Vulture, “As a kid, your religion is just doing whatever your parents picked up … I remember learning about religions in school and being like, ‘Well, why?’ … I didn’t want to be doing it just because my parents did it.” The filmmaker Nijla Mu’min’s stellar 2018 coming-of-age story, Jinn, offers an entirely different lens, focusing instead on how a mother’s midlife conversion affects her teen daughter.
Whatever decisions their protagonists make in the end, many Muslim works are framed—by the viewing public and media, if not also by their creators—primarily as explorations of faith and cultural allegiance. And though the naturalistic drama spends much of its runtime exploring such tensions, Hala’s most poignant moments don’t revolve around the girl’s more pointed rebellions, including her brief rejection of her hijab. The film is affecting in a quieter realm: its depiction of Hala’s relationship with her parents, especially her mother, Eram (played by Purbi Joshi).
For viewers who’ve seen other stories featuring immigrant—and especially Muslim—parents, Hala’s mother and father might fall into a recognizable pattern. Early on, Baig establishes both as conservative and often overbearing. The girl’s mother chastises Hala for missing morning prayers and for hanging around a skatepark because boys are present. She appears to be strict not because she understands the risks her daughter might encounter, but rather because overprotectiveness is a cultural hallmark. Some viewers might understandably balk at these tropes that pervade early scenes. But the film’s ultimate goal is to show how, even if Hala doesn’t actually resolve any of her inner struggles, she at least comes to empathize with her parents on a deeper level.
Hala achieves this in part by revealing familial rifts that allow the teen to see her parents more fully as human beings. Though Hala gets along more easily with her father, Zahid (Azad Khan), a revelation about him midway through the film nudges the girl closer to her mother. This shift doesn’t happen quickly, but through understated scenes like the one in which Eram brushes Hala’s hair and begins to admit the trepidation she felt before marriage. Baig lights these moments warmly, sometimes gently obscuring Eram’s and Hala’s faces as they speak. “It was a very difficult time for us. We had so many dreams,” Eram says in Urdu of leaving Pakistan with her husband. “We thought, by coming to America, we could start over. And then we could change our lives.” Hala responds in English: “Did you … change your lives?” Eram dodges the question, instead telling her daughter that her hair’s finished. The camera pulls back, too, as if afraid to intrude. Neither character is immediately comfortable yet sharing too much of herself, but a profound connection has been made.
Other scenes, in which Baig’s camera captures Hala’s parents discussing the teen at the dinner table while she eavesdrops from another room, render literal the distance that Hala feels internally. These directing choices help give weight to the film’s abstract concepts about selfhood and belonging. They also hint at the fragility of the family’s structure, which takes a sharp turn in the film’s dramatic third act. That shift brings more meaning to Hala and Eram’s conversations, and the added texture helps Hala end on a hopeful, if also tenuous, note.
While Baig does try to give her protagonist a unique journey, her film is flattest in the moments when Hala registers as a stand-in for young Muslim women in general. The film’s storylines about sexuality in particular sometimes scan as heavy-handed; Hala essentially opens with a scene of its protagonist masturbating in the bath and missing a prayer because of it. In the context of a comedy, that sequence might have felt irreverent or playful. Here, though, the juxtaposition seems clearly intended to shock, or to teach. Showing how Hala’s sexual exploration threatens a pillar of her faith sets up a bright line between the two that feels reductive, especially in light of the nuance of later scenes. These opening moments don’t make the film any less worthy of viewing, though. One teen girl can only carry so much.