One of the strongest independent movies to emerge from Chicago in recent memory is "Hala," which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, where it was picked up by Apple TV+.
The story centers on a high school senior named Hala Masood, who is navigating the tension between her role as the daughter of traditional-minded Muslim Pakistani immigrants and her life as a teenager with romantic and sexual interests, particularly in a certain tousled-hair classmate she sees while skateboarding. The film opens in theaters next week and will be available on Apple's streaming service starting Dec. 6.
Writer-director Minhal Baig (whose TV credits include Netflix's "BoJack Horseman" and Hulu's "Ramy") is emphatic that the movie -- set in and filmed in Rogers Park, where Baig grew up -- is not autobiographical. But the story's themes are pulled from her own life.
Executive producer Jada Pinkett Smith was instrumental in helping to get the film made. "I pitched her the movie, she read the script and was like, 'I want to do this and I want to put my resources behind you,'" said Baig. "And she was like that for the whole process. She even told me when we were cutting the movie, 'Ultimately, it's yours. I can give you notes as an artist to an artist, but I trust you to make the movie that you want to make.' She was great."
Pinkett Smith said she signed on because she was impressed by Baig's "aesthetic and super-intrigued by the story. I wanted to help Minhal find the resources and a platform to make the film she wanted to make. 'Hala' is the powerful story of a woman's journey. We don't see a lot of those. The film is about a traditional Muslim family, but it's a story that mothers, fathers and teens from any background can relate to."
Based in Los Angeles, Baig was in town last month for the Chicago International Film Festival, where the movie screened. She underscored that while Hala is not a stand-in for her teenage self (despite some physical resemblances between filmmaker and star), the story is rooted in Baig's emotional truth and many details from her life.
Played by Geraldine Viswanathan (of the 2018 comedy "Blockers"), Hala is forever grappling with her bifurcated existence. Or as she tries to explain in class one day, living honestly means collapsing the lines between how you see yourself and how you present yourself.
"A lot of children of first-generation immigrants have learned to live in duplicity, and it's very normalized and feels like you're not lying about who you are. Because of course you would be a different way with your parents than you are with your friends," said Baig. "But I think where it becomes difficult is when one of these identities feels less true to who you are -- that it's more for the performance of it than the essence of what you want to be. And then you feel like, OK I'm compartmentalizing parts of myself and they don't feel like one whole.
"And for me it was important to at least try to reduce that gap a little bit. The biggest thing was just not being able to be honest in either space because I was trying to please everybody. As I was growing older it became clear that I needed to be able to navigate these two things with more fluidity. Because I don't want to lose the parts of my culture and faith that I was raised with and feel very connected to, but also I'm an individual and I have wants and needs and desires and things I want to do and express. And I have to find a way to do all these things at once."
Some of that tension is perhaps still an ongoing project. Baig said she stayed downtown while shooting the film rather than at her childhood home.