March 25, 2023

By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer

Geraldine Viswanathan plays Hala in Minhal Baig’s feature film “Hala”.
Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Chicago born writer-director Minhal Baig’s character study of an immigrant teenager named Hala is an intimate coming-of-age story of a girl struggling to choose a path for herself. The feature was screened as a Canadian Premiere in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival which ended its 10-day run on September 15. The film showcases a breakout performance by Geraldine Viswanathan as an American born, second-generation Muslim girl straddling between loyalty to her Pakistani heritage and the appeal of a freer, contemporary society she’s living in.

The name ‘Hala’ means Halo in Arabic, but the predicament the character Hala’s in is nothing ethereal but realistically grounded in the everyday world. While Hala’s lawyer father (Azad Khan) is more open in his viewpoints, her mother (Purbi Joshi) is a devout Muslim with high expectations of her daughter in following the family’s religious practices. Both parents are adamant that the choice of a future husband for Hala (not too young to plan ahead) has to align with their traditional religious values.

Viswanathan’s portrayal of Hala is affective and convincing. Hala is a special teenager. She skateboards to school, loves literature and is a gifted writer in her high school graduating class. Her English teacher Mr. Lawrence (Gabriel Luna) notices her talent and encourages her often. Leading her to the crossroad of difficult choices is her close friendship with a white classmate Jesse (Jack Kilmer). Jesse is a fellow skateboarder and writes poetry. The two young people have developed an intimate relationship kept secret from Hala’s parents.

The film is beautifully shot. Director Baig’s handling is intimate, drawing audience in from the very beginning, effectively leading viewers to be concerned with Hala’s pressing dilemma and predicament. However, the situation of the parents’ is equally real, something every immigrant family has to confront with: the preservation of cultural heritage against mainstream societal values.

Regardless of cultural specifics, what is universal as presented in the film is the bringing up of the next generation where parental expectations and differences in values could create a chasm between parents and their teenagers, and the polarization of views regarding issues such as personal freedom, choice of friends and future directions in life.

Another recent film dealing with a similar subject is Iranian-Canadian, Montreal based filmmaker Sadaf Foroughi’s feature “Ava” (TIFF 2017), the coming-of-age story of an Iranian teenaged girl growing up in a conservative society. It is interesting to note that, no matter how strict and prescriptive societal or family values are, the yearning and aspirations within the hearts of young people growing up are very similar. The longing for personal freedom, the search for self and identity as well as sexual exploration are universal.

Baig’s story isn’t a straightforward one. A twist in the middle of the film changes the dynamics in relationships and trust. What follows in the latter part is a diversion into another path for the parents, with Hala’s mother especially, as she goes on her own personal journey of awakening.

Overall, ‘Hala’ is a film that favours the young. How traditional values can survive in a contemporary, Western society is a difficult issue to find answers to, not just for immigrant families but in the mainstream as well. Baig has brought out a thought-provoking scenario that is both realistic and demands attention.

Contact Diana Cheng at [email protected] or visit at Twitter @Arti_Ripples or visit her blog Ripple Effects

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