A winning and emotionally balanced coming of age comedy, Imran J. Khan’s first feature Mustache (the Centrepiece presentation of this year’s Reel Asian Film Festival) is among the finest teen movies of the modern era, right alongside the works of Kelly Fremon Craig (The Edge of Seventeen, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret). It’s high praise given the state of the genre lately, and Khan’s frank and humorous look at growing up Muslim in small town California during the late 90s hits like a blast of fresh air.
Ilyas (played brilliantly by newcomer Atharva Verma) finds himself being switched from a sheltered life in Muslim school to a public high school in San Jose for his Freshman year, after an incident with another student forces his parents to make the move. The cause of said incident can be traced back to the moustache on young Ilyas’ upper lip, which started growing when he was twelve and his parents forbid him from shaving it off, making him an easy target for teasing and outright bullying. Insecurity and a desire to be “corrupted” enough to lead the life of a normal teen lead to Ilyas dabbling in his new school’s drama program (taught by a warm, kindly Alicia Silverstone), where he can also keep tabs on his new crush (Melody Cao).
Khan’s screenplay confidently balances a few different story threads and developments that dovetail perfectly into each other, building a complex, but not overstuffed look at the expectations parents place on their children. Mustache is a film where all of the characters around young Ilyas are just as fascinating to think about as the focal point, each of them given full arc, hopes, dreams, and competing interests. It’s as smart as films about growing up tend to get, and the Muslim perspective adds quite a bit to Mustache that other similar movies lack. Also, it’s a certifiable crowd pleaser that never speaks down to its audience or takes the easy path to a wonderful final payoff.
Mustache screens as part of the 2023 Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto on Sunday, November 12 at 7:30 pm at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
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