Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 94 minutes. Next screenings: Sunday, Jan. 27, 6 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Theatre, Salt Lake City; Monday, Jan. 28, 5:30 p.m., The MARC Theatre, Park City; Thursday, Jan. 31, Eccles Center Theatre, Park City; Friday, 11:45 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre, Park City.
Writer-director Minhal Baig’s “Hala” covers the same ground as most coming-of-age dramas do — awkwardness, sexual awakening, disputes with parents — but brings a vitality to the story by being rooted in the filmmaker’s own experience, growing up in a Pakistani-American Muslim family.
The title character, Hala (played by Geraldine Viswanathan), is a studious and devout Muslim whose parents, Eram (Purbi Joshi) and Zahid (Azad Khan), emigrated to Pakistan years earlier. Hala is a skateboard-loving senior in a Chicago-area high school, where she gets good grades and compliments from her English teacher, Mr. Lawrence (Gabriel Luna), about her writing. She’s also the only kid in P.E. who changes clothes in the bathroom stall rather than the girl’s locker room, and covers herself from head to toe.
But Hala, like most high school kids, also has sex on her mind. The first time we see her in the film, she’s pleasuring herself in the bathtub. She also develops a crush on Jesse (Jack Kilmer), the only boy in that English class who can recite poetry. Hala talks to Jesse at the skate park, in defiance of her dad’s rules against spending time with boys.
At first, Hala is prone to following her father’s wishes, and she gets along with him than with her perfectionist mom. But as Baig’s story, adapted from her short film, progresses, Hala finds herself following her heart — and discovering some unpleasant truths about her dad.
Baig mines her personal story, and the specific details of head scarfs and arranged marriages, for both gentle humor and profound heartbreak. She also finds a kindred spirit in Viswanathan, who played John Cena’s daughter in “Blockers” and here shows dramatic chops to match her comic skills — and a charm that carries us through even when Hala makes some poor choices on her way toward discovering herself.