Family and tradition unravel in ‘Hala’

In writer and director Minhal Baig’s new film Hala, a seventeen-year-old Muslim American teenager “Hala” (Geraldine Viswanathan) struggles to find a balance between her family and cultural values. As she begins to grow up and realize who she is, Hala’s secret threatens to unravel her family. (SYJ: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Media Intern Sophia Y. Jin

Hala gets interrupted by her mother “Eram” (Purbi Joshi) during her morning bath. In Arabic, her mother tells Hala that she missed her morning prayers. There is already tension between Hala and her mother by breakfast time, whereas Hala and her father “Zahid” (Azad Khan) get along well. Zahid defends Hala and asks Eram to cut her some slack.

As she has already missed her school bus, she skateboards to school. Her mother clearly does not approve of her skateboarding, as it is unladylike, looked down upon by the Muslim community, and possibly dangerous, but it is a form of freedom for Hala.

When she arrives at school, she goes to her English class, and reads a piece of her writing aloud. Anyone can see her writing is profound, but some boys in the back are giggling. Immediately, the teacher, “Mr. Lawrence” (Gabriel Luna), intervenes and shuts down their laughter. As the class finishes, Mr. Lawrence returns people’s essays and tells Hala that she has a knack for English, and writing especially, and that if she were interested in pursuing it for college, she should speak to him.

For gym class, Hala changes in a bathroom stall, so she is not seen with her skin uncovered. Once changed, she joins her classmates out on the track field, where she is the only one in long jogging bottoms and a long-sleeved shirt, as well as her hijab. She is adhering to the Muslim traditions and rules, but does not seem uncomfortable about it, seeing it as a choice rather than a law.

Hala starts to liaise with a boy in her class, “Jesse Ross” (Jack Kilmer), when they meet at the skate park. Hala isn’t allowed to fraternize with males, but she’s not used to it anyway. Feeling uncomfortable, she practically flees the park. Arriving home, her parents question where she has been. Of course, she has to lie about hanging out with a guy. Eram says that another Muslim friend of hers spotted Hala in the park with Jesse. She warns Hala of community gossip and what it could do to their family. So, Hala and Jesse become a couple in secret. During one of their dates, she finds out something about her father that changes their relationship, turning the family dynamic on its head and forces them to make difficult choices.

Minhal Baig’s new film Hala shows a Muslim’s teenager’s life turn upside down. The new experiences of growing up challenge her cultural values and her understanding of how she should act. The friction between her parents, the secrecy of her relationship, and the importance of public image all result in internal conflict. Hala’s portrayal of a widely practised religion, Islam, shows that in a Western society, Islam’s treatment of women can seem oppressively conservative. The film does not show that the religion or its family values are bad, but it shows how Hala’s family navigates these values into their world. Hala’s life is disrupted by an internal fight between Western beliefs and Islamic values. 

Geraldine Viswanathan’s portrayal of Hala is beautifully normal. She isn’t outlandish or hard to believe, but rather raw and real, just like a real school girl would be. Her castmates also did a great job. For example, Hala’s father’s character development is dramatic, but it feels natural. This raw and beautiful film shows struggle and how people heal. I would definitely recommend a watch!

© Sophia Jin (11/29/19) FF2 Media

Q: Does Hala pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes!

In one of the film’s most striking scenes, Hala and her mother stand on the street outside their house, talking about their own futures.

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