Much like seeing a groundhog on Groundhog Day, celebrity sightings at Sundance are often serendipitous. You have to be in the right place at the right time in order to even steal a quick glance, but the most obvious route to take in spotting some movie stars is going to a panel discussion. On day five of the festival, I had the pleasure of watching a loose, funny conversation between Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”) and Ed Helms (“The Office”), moderated by New York Times pop culture commentator Kyle Buchanan. Some questions revolved around the Sundance premieres of their new films — Slate with “The Sunlit Night” and Helms with “Corporate Animals” — but the two comedic actors also shared some lovely anecdotes about working in the same field of entertainment, being real-life friends, the world of stand-up vs. the world of acting, their past experiences at Sundance and overcoming stage fright.
After the chat, I ventured to Atticus, a nearby coffee shop/bookstore hybrid on Main Street, where I spent a few hours writing reviews before heading to my only screening of the day, Minhal Baig’s “Hala.” At one point, in walked Tobey Maguire (“Spider-Man”), who produced this year’s Audience Award winner “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” as did the rest of the main cast: Jillian Bell (“22 Jump Street”), Lil’ Rel Howery (“Get Out”) and Utkarsh Ambudkar (“Pitch Perfect”). The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. And yet, even with this pleasant surprise, there’s a sense of unease that comes with finding some famous folk floating around Park City.
By having to juggle their status with the films they’re promoting at the festival, celebrities are probably already well aware of the fact that their presence is on full blast. This is not to say that every filmmaker or actor at Sundance is closed off from interacting with their fans — flocks of movie-goers, for example, went to congratulate and talk with a receptive Baig about “Hala” following the post-screening Q&A — but there’s a certain distance that comes with which celebs you see. Perhaps it’s just my own insecurity with treating celebrities like they’re on a pedestal — they’re normal people, too! — and the overwhelming nature of trigger-happy, over-friendly film enthusiasts. Either way, it’s a reminder of how fun and strange the blurring between the industry and the public can be, especially in a setting as temporary as Sundance.
For a film that should’ve been groundbreaking in de-homogenizing the coming-of-age genre, “Hala” is oddly formulaic and dry. Based on the acclaimed 2016 short of the same name, writer-director Minhal Baig’s underwhelming bildungsroman centers on a Muslim-American girl named Hala (Geraldine Viswanathan, “Blockers”), who finds herself struggling to reconcile the contradictory nature of her hyphenated identity.
Hala is a gifted, studious writer, often waxing poetic through narration and receiving encouragement from her attorney father Zahid (newcomer Hatta Azad Khan) and English teacher Mr. Lawrence (Gabriel Luna, “Temple Grandin”). Her biggest obstacle, however, lies within the tense relationship with her strict, devout mother Eram (Purbi Joshi, “Damadamm!”), who criticizes Hala for her lack of enthusiasm over practicing Islam and spending more quality time with Zahid.
Despite a promising setup, “Hala” hits many of the predictable dramatic beats and universal conflicts that one could find a typical film about high school — a fractured home life, an uncertain future, first crushes, feeling like the end of the world could happen at any moment. The only difference is that the story is positioned through the lens of a Muslim-American teenager, which certainly helps “Hala” distinguish itself among the many coming-of-age flicks revolving around white boys that have dominated young adult cinema for quite some time. “Hala” even includes a few thematic echoes of Greta Gerwig’s transcendent “Lady Bird,” mirroring that film’s dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamics, unabashed display of burgeoning female sexuality and spiritual emphasis on the meaning of its protagonist’s name (Hala means “halo” in Arabic).
Unfortunately, “Hala” is nowhere near as nuanced, well-written and honest as “Lady Bird,” stumbling through its tried-and-true plot with aggressively on-the-nose dialogue and uninteresting, dimensionless characters. Eram is a particularly egregious example of a rigid immigrant mother stereotype, a depiction reminiscent of Kumail Nanjiani’s character’s mother in “The Big Sick.” Additionally, Hala’s love interest Jesse (Jack Kilmer, “Palo Alto”) is vastly underwritten, his main traits only being that he shares the same love for literature and skateboarding as Hala. But above everything, Hala’s own motivations for what she wants to do with her life remain unclear, despite Viswanathan’s versatile, sensitive portrayal.
Her desire for sexual and personal agency in a restrictive home environment invites slivers of inspired, soulful introspection. This contrast becomes immediately transparent in the first two scenes of the film, where Hala intones an Islamic prayer off-screen before the camera cuts to her masturbating in a bathtub. Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” also presents a neat juxtaposition between Hala’s inner turmoil and external circumstances, acting as both a reading assignment for her English class and an intriguing, if somewhat lazy form of exploring the film’s theme of self-sufficiency. But during the messy third act, that desire reaches an unsettling low involving her English teacher, which provokes a surprising but unearned reversal between her parents.
Considering how the story is based loosely on Baig’s own life experience, it’s somewhat exasperating that “Hala” fails to convey any new, insightful truths about the rocky tidal wave of growing up. The respectable and quite welcome normalization of Hala’s storyline is unquestionably a start. There’s no mention or showcase of Islamophobia, allowing the audience to recognize Hala’s problems beyond the preconceived expectations of what it’s like to live as an oppressed minority in America. In fact, the specificity of Hala’s identity might resonate much more with those who see this film as an achievement in fighting the underrepresentation of Muslim-American women. And while “Hala” should be celebrated as such, audiences deserve a much better fleshed-out story.