‘Jinn’: Film Review | SXSW 2018

Jinn Still 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Bruce Francis Cole
Wish it were better.

A subpar script sinks this coming-of-age drama about a California teenager reckoning with sexuality and spirituality.

At a glance, writer-director Nijla Mu’min’s debut feature, Jinn, is everything we should be seeing more of — a film headlined by people of color, and set in a milieu (in this case, a California Islamic community) that a majority of movies ignore, trivialize or debase. Mu’min based the story on several of her own experiences; her parents divorced when she was young and she shuttled around between her devout Muslim father and her more free-spirited mother. And in lead actress Zoe Renee, who plays the 17-year-old protagonist, Summer, she’s found a magnetic artist who deserves a long and fruitful career.

There are good, admirable intentions, and then there’s the movie that results from them. Sad to say, Jinn consistently lets down its premise and performers with a by-the-numbers-at-best screenplay that triple-underlines all of its forward-thinking themes. It’s clear things are off from an early scene in which one of Summer’s teachers earnestly and emphatically asks her class, “What is identity?” Even by the cut-rate standards of this cliché — an educator character baldly stating a story's thesis — the film manages to rise below it. Things slightly improve in a subsequent sequence in which Summer and her friends go to a pizza place and she flirts with a counter girl. (Her reward: extra pepperoni.) Renee can communicate so much with a wink and a smile that only the barest dialogue is necessary, though Mu’min rarely trusts her actress to, you know, act.

Instead, she forces her through contrivance after contrivance. The crux of the narrative is Summer’s relationship with her meteorologist mother Jade (Simone Missick), a recent convert to Islam, and the ways in which the parent’s newfound spirituality clashes with the child’s more secular/sexualized world. Summer’s teasing encounter with the pizzeria employee, which is never expanded upon, is meant to show how, like the mystical being of the film’s title, she is an impressionable creature who can change her longings and her looks in all of an instant. So, in some strange space between her mother’s insistence and Summer’s own curiosity, Islam becomes her new fashion.

But can the teachings of Allah be balanced with the diabolic demands of Instagram? What passes for a major crisis in Jinn is a social media selfie gone viral in which a scantily clad Summer poses in a hijab, which brings forth the ire of both her mother and the not-as-kindly-as-he-seems Imam (Hisham Tawfiq) at a local masjid. “It’s over, Summer,” says one of the girl’s high school classmates. “You’re a hashtag now.” That bad dialogue is easily outdone by this testy exchange after our protagonist runs afoul of one of the dance trio she’s training with for the senior year talent show: “That was cold, Summer,” says her friend. “So is ignorance!” she retorts. It's rather shocking that the SXSW Narrative Feature jury awarded the film a Special Recognition for Writing since that is plainly its weakest element.

It’s no fun poking at a movie this eager to spotlight the underrepresented and to break down the barriers that divide us. But Mu’min’s reach and grasp are so very far removed overall that you can’t help but continually cringe. (Especially embarrassing: the college acceptance letter as conflict-resolving deus ex machina.) In such a case, it’s better to focus on the few flashes of inspiration that do arise. Here, that’s mostly in how Renee asserts her full-throated humanity despite the subpar material; the hoary climax in which Summer does an impromptu poetry reading is moving primarily for the actress’ commitment to selling the moment. And credit where it’s due to Mu’min: She has a sharp eye for onscreen talent — all of whom she’ll hopefully gift, in the near-future, with a much better showcase.

Production companies: Sweet Potato Pie, Morgan’s Mark
Cast: Zoe Renee, Simone Missick, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Hisham Tawfiq, Kelly Jenrette, Dorian Missick, Ashlei Foushee, Maya Morales
Director-screenwriter: Nijla Mu’min
Producers: Avril Z. Speaks, Nijla Mu’min, Maya Emelle, Arielle Saturne
Executive producers: Mike C. Manning, Elton Brand, Angela Harvey, Simone Missick, Tommy Oliver, Billy Mulligan, Jason Kampf
Associate producers: Shandra McDonald, Roderick W. Teachey
Cinematographer: Bruce Francis Cole
Composer: Jesi Nelson
Costume Design: Beth (Bephie) Gibbs
Editor: Collin Kriner
Production design: Megan Grimes
Sound design: Paul Zahnley, Matthew Strasser
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)

91 minutes