Director – Minhal Baig
Cast – Geraldine Viswanathan, Jack Kilmer, Anna Chlumsky, Gabriel Luna, Purbi Joshi, Azad Khan
For a film that opens with a moment of ecstasy, Hala is quite the grim affair. Barely a smile is cracked in its lean hour-and-a-half runtime; most conversations are coated with impatience, resentment and repression. Anytime the teenage Hala dares to express her true emotions, it is considered a sign of weakness. The film is, in many ways, an accurate depiction of growing up in a South Asian household.
Featuring a stunning lead performance by Geraldine Viswanathan, whom you might remember for her outstanding turn in the recent comedy Blockers, Hala — the character and the film’s — disarming silences effectively hide a warm and vibrant soul. You get the sense that Hala used to be a bright young girl — she still is, deep down — but years of cohabitation with her emotionally distant Pakistani immigrant parents, speaking but not really conversing, have robbed her of any desire to connect with them, and indeed, with anyone else.
Watch the Hala trailer here
Uneducated and inexperienced in this regard, she acts in unusual ways; her disconnect with her real emotions manifests in outward sexual behaviour, and public meltdowns.
The distance between Hala and her parents is quite apparent, not only in how they interact with each other — mom and dad speak almost exclusively in Urdu, while Hala responds, monosyllabically, in English — but also in what they say. Her mother, burdened by her own insecurities, rarely talks to her about anything other than the insufficiency of her diet and the cleanliness of her room. Or at least, that’s what it sounds like. “But I didn’t ask you to do any of this,” Hala tells her mother after a parking lot discussion about laundry.
Her father, meanwhile, seems to be engaged in a losing battle with his daughter over her evolution into a young woman. It’s typically selfish behaviour from a man who is revealed to be quite conceited. After a night out with her crush, Hala returns home to be greeted not with relief or warmth, but by her father’s seething anger. “Who were you with?” he demands. “No one,” Hala stammers. “Tell me the truth or I’ll bring out the Koran and make you swear on it,” her father says, using what seems to be his go-to threat.
Geraldine Viswanathan as Hala, in a still from Minhal Baig’s film.
Religion, tradition, and identity clash in director Minhal Baig’s deeply personal film, due out on Apple TV+ on December 6 after a buzzy Sundance premiere. Like filmmaker Lulu Wang, Baig had also already made her feature debut prior to truly finding her voice with her second film; and like Wang’s The Farewell, Hala is also a story about the immigrant experience, and the often volatile mixture of American values and Asian attitudes.
Viswanathan is just as revelatory in Hala as Awkwafina was in The Farewell. Both actors are wonderfully understated in their respective roles as women at odds with their environments, struggling to comprehend their place in the world. They communicate more with their eyes than their mouths, simmering with quiet intensity and exploding with emotion. But something holds them back. While Hala finds partial escape in poetry, I wonder what the lasting effects of her childhood trauma will be.
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Perhaps she will emerge from the confines of her prison and blossom into a wonderful artist, or perhaps she’ll follow in the footsteps of her mother, settling for a good Muslim man to cook and care for. Things could go either way for Hala. Growing up is difficult, but imagine having to do it twice.