Minhal Baig’s Hala is an observant character study of a young and curious woman trying to find her identity, torn between a devoutly religious Pakistani family and her life as an American-born teen in high school.
Director Minhal Baig spends a lot of time in Hala simply observing the title character (played beautifully by Geraldine Viswanathan) silently but sharply taking in the world and people around her. Viswanathan’s eyes are wide and keen as she sits in English class or listens to her parents at the dinner table. The latter is a situation where she’s often silent unless spoken to, but that doesn’t mean she’s not paying attention: Viswanathan’s eyes are constantly moving and we can see her taking in each word. Hala is a young and curious woman trying to find her identity, torn between a devoutly religious Pakistani family and her life as an American-born teen in high school. Hala is acutely aware of the ways in which these two worlds contradict each other, and often, she feels like a helpless victim of this clash, where all she can do is sit and watch.
Baig’s film is an introspective character study that’s best in its quieter sequences. Viswanathan’s insight into the character of Hala and Baig’s knack for bringing that out cinematically makes for some of the wisest and most contemplative stretches of film at the festival. The orchestral, classical-style score is an interesting choice for a modern coming-of-age tale, but it lends the film a beautiful sense of tranquillity. The film falters in its third act when plot and conflict take precedence over character. Several characters’ choices come out of nowhere, so a conclusion that could have been deeply satisfying with stronger writing just feels unearned. Still, Viswanathan (who was rightly named one of TIFF’s Rising Stars) is captivating throughout. She’s an actress you could happily watch for minutes in a wordless, static closeup, so astute and detailed is her performance.
Apple has worldwide distribution rights.
Screens 9/11 at 12:30 p.m. (Lightbox) and 9/12 at 5:30 p.m. (Lightbox). Tickets here.