Directed by Minhal Baig
In “Hala”—streamer Apple TV+’s first narrative original movie—writer/director Minhal Baig (adapting her own short film of the same name) seems to have a nice idea for a character—a defiant Muslim teenager, played by “Blockers” standout Geraldine Viswanathan—but a less inspired idea for what to do with that character.
Skateboarding high schooler Hala Masood (Viswanathan) has settled into a mildly rebellious routine—she goes to school (where she excels in English class), then hangs out with some friends or a boy she likes, and then goes home to her stern parents (Azad Khan and Purbi Joshi) who question her about her evening. All of that changes when Hala discovers a family secret, the heavy burden of which is too much for this still-fragile child to bear.
Aside from her 2016 short, Baig is best known for writing one episode each of “BoJack Horseman” and “Ramy.” I enjoyed “Ramy” for its brave depiction of a young Muslim who actually wants to grow in his faith, instead of reject it. Cash in on a free trial of Hulu and binge that series ASAP. But in “Hala,” we see a Muslim character who feels more familiar to us—who rejects the customs of her family and controversial tenets of her religion. That makes her very relatable, but also sort of uncomplicated. Baig’s writing is to blame, but her direction also seems basic. Unless the cast isn’t capable of providing a realistic slate of emotions—and, since I’ve seen “Blockers” and enjoyed Viswanathan’s performance (in a comedy, but still), I don’t believe that—I’m inclined instead to believe Baig’s direction was simply not asking for much.
“Hala” has been hit with some controversy in early reviews that I do disagree with. Reviewers on IMDb (who may or may not have even seen the movie yet) complain that “Hala” presents an orientalist depiction of Muslims. Orientalism is the “othering” of Muslims or other Asian cultures. But I’m not sure why filmmakers shouldn’t be allowed to show—or even highlight—cultural differences without being criticized for othering them. Wouldn’t Americanizing other cultures be more offensive? The same people claimed Hala’s white boyfriend serves as a white savior, which is so far from the truth I have to believe those people had only seen the trailer (“Hala” wasn’t streaming at the time that I previewed it and wrote this review).
“Hala” begins like so many simple portraits of multicultural characters. But even after it adds a small amount of drama, it never becomes as engaging as it needs to be.