Geraldine Viswanathan is astonishingly resonant as a teenager testing the boundaries of faith, tradition and sexuality.
The title character of “Hala” — a Pakistani-American teenager in her final year of high school — is cautious with her words, but avidly curious with her eyes and ears. Floating in a limbo between two cultures, she’s gently pulling back from her Muslim faith and tentatively testing her crush on Jesse (Jack Kilmer), a tousled blond classmate with a sensitive soul. She’s a fascinating paradox, at once subdued and adventurous: One moment, she’s meekly enduring the affectionate nagging of her anxious mother (Purbi Joshi); the next, she’s racing through their Chicago suburb on her skateboard. Right away, we want to know her better.
Effortlessly conveying this bifurcation, the young Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan is, quite simply, sublime. Wisely, the writer and director, Minhal Baig (incorporating aspects of her own teenage experiences), allows her to resonate in settings that are clean and quiet, while Carolina Costa’s camera studies her face with soft intent. Momentous things happen in “Hala,” but the soundtrack remains mostly hushed and voices are rarely raised. In one simple shopping scene, Hala’s mother urges her to try on a shapeless plaid shirt; she does, but only after reaching for a silky, sleeveless top with a look of such longing it feels almost indecent.
Other characters, however, can seem less like fully formed individuals than convenient devices to facilitate Hala’s journey. When her fond father (Azad Khan), a successful lawyer, is exposed for actions that threaten to destroy the family, his motivations remain unplumbed. And her observant English teacher (Gabriel Luna) is drawn so indistinctly that an emotionally pivotal scene between the two is significantly weakened.