A Jinn is a supernatural spirit from Arabic mythology that is made of fire or air and can assume human or animal form. It’s also a spot-on title for writer/director Nijla Mu’min’s story about a mother and daughter desperately trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. This coming-of-age drama isn’t the most polished film to come out of SXSW this year, but it is one of the most promising.
Jinn tells the story of Summer (Zoe Renee), a black high school senior in search of her search identity. Summer lives with her mother, Jade (Simone Missick), a Los Angeles meteorologist who, like her daughter, is still figuring out who she is. Summer, who has her sites set on becoming a dancer is young, cool, and open-minded – she hits on a girl working in a pizza joint just to get a few extra pepperonis on her slice. Jade 100% commits to her newest identity, a devout Islamic woman, though her intentions for doing so aren’t clear. She’s the type to try on personalities like off the rack dresses, and it’s possible she wants to catch the eye of Imam Khalid (Hisham Tawfiq). Jade thrusts her new religion on her daughter, and at first, it’s not a bad fit.
Jinn’s interested in identity; how some people find comfort in pre-defined roles while others spend their lives shunning existing labels. The film explores this question by contrasting Summer and Jade. Jade is actively searching for her niche. She is like a modern-day crooner who sticks to Sinatra ballads. Unlike her mother, Summer never stops evolving. She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants, so she samples a bit of everything. When she takes a racy Instagram selfie in a bra and headscarf she’s bending religion to fit her teenage needs; she’s a DJ borrowing what she likes from those same Sinatra records and remixing them into 2018 bangers.
Credit goes to Jinn for telling a story that normalizes a group of people who the media portrays as “others” on a good day, but most often, as threats. I’m also a sucker for coming-of-age stories, so Summer’s journey of self-discovery had a low bar to clear to win me over. On paper, I should love this movie, but my feelings about it are, at best, lukewarm. Despite the excellent casting, immersive cinematography, and relatable themes, much of this picture feels forced, awkward, and reductive.
You know you’re in for a bumpy ride when early on in a movie, somebody (in this case Summer’s teacher) outright states the story’s themes. This film proceeds to ride the By-the-numbers express all the way to On-the-nose-ville. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to enjoy a work of fiction, but too often, Jinn seems disinterested in subtlety and nuance. I’m all for the messages Mu’min wants to share, but her execution feels so contrived that I’m taken out of the story.
The picture owes plenty to its talented young lead, Renee. She has such a magnetic screen presence that I kept rooting for her even when her character stumbled, and she stumbles a lot. Mu’min isn’t interested in giving us a 2018 version of Vanessa Huxtable. This protagonist has feet of clay. Summer is moody, makes bad decisions, and she is straight-up offensive towards her mother and friends – much like an actual teenager. This picture is working off a weak script, and with a lesser actress in the role, it’s easy to turn on the Summer character. But Renee turns in such a strong performance that Summer’s humanity overcomes the stilted dialogue, predictable plot beats, and spotty behaviour.
Despite all the tired metaphors and cringe-worthy dialogue, the film still has its moments. Renee turns in a radiant lead performance, the story spotlights underrepresented POCs, and Mu’min often flashes hints of her potential as a filmmaker. Jinn is a mixed-bag that almost lost me a couple of times, but Mu’min does just enough to keep me from mentally abandoning ship. Would I recommend going out of your way to catch this film? I’m on the fence about that. While Jinn isn’t a solid all-around movie, Mu’min’s engaging directing style impressed me enough to earn a spot on my filmmakers to watch list.