It’s actually quite hard to find a film — especially a non-“faith-based” film — that treats crises and conversions of religious faith as face-value issues, and not metaphors for something broader and more secular. Outside of this year’s excellent First Reformed, clergymen in crises are mere tropes and gateways to other dramatic scenarios; conversions are often a means for a comedy of manners. Jinn, written and directed by Nijla Mu’min, is a bracing counterexample to all that, a radically empathetic conversation about adolescence and religion, integrity and change. (Full disclosure: I served on the SXSW jury that awarded it a Special Jury Award for writing.)
Summer (Zoe Renee) is an L.A. teen in her last year of high school, looking forward to attending college for dance, working on choreographing her and her friends’ dance routine for the end-of-year talent show. Her mother, Jade (Simone Missick) is a local TV meteorologist who, as the film opens, has decided to convert to Islam. She’s raising Summer for the most part on her own — Summer’s father lives in the Valley with a new partner — and we get hints that this is not her first time transforming herself. The first words of the film are her asking Summer, apropos of nothing, if she would look good with a shaved head. Summer shrugs and guesses she’d look fine, not having an inkling yet of the bigger change her mother has in mind.
When Jade starts attending a local mosque, Summer starts tagging along — reluctantly at first, and then, at the urging of her father, with an effort to perhaps learn something before she leaves the house. She soon finds so many of the things she loves — dance, Instagram, pepperoni pizza — wildly at odds with her new would-be faith, while still being drawn in by Islam and finding much to like about it. Meanwhile, Jade plunges herself in the community of the mosque, and causes a stir when she shows up for work in a hijab. (Yes, there are multiple weather-forecast metaphors that tip us off that it won’t be an easy road for either of them.)
What’s striking about Mu’min’s script is how agnostic, for lack of a better word, it is about its characters’ religion. Islam is neither a tyrannical force in Summer’s life brought down to bear on her by her mother, nor is it a virtuous beacon to which she must inevitably be drawn. Jade’s conversion is depicted as a real, legitimate choice (“I had the most beautiful day,” she tells Summer rapturously after her first visit to the mosque) but the sheer whiplash oddity for Summer of suddenly being in a religious household, and all the new rules and judgments that entails, is not shied away from. Summer and Jade are often at odds in the film, but they are two fully formed characters figuring out what they want from the world in their own way.
The only downside to this is that it renders Jinn, especially in its final act, feeling a little adirectional. Midway through the film, Summer starts seeing Tahir (Kelvin Harrison), a boy from the mosque and a classmate of hers. Their relationship starts off being mostly conversational, Summer peppering Tahir with questions about his life and faith. When it becomes physical, Mu’min depicts their connection with utter solemnity, and when Tahir’s mother, Rasheedah, finds out about them, her reaction is depicted with equal gravity. “Do you think this is a game?” Rasheedah asks Summer, chastising her for playing fast and loose with the religion she has sacrificed so much for. In Mu’min’s community of characters, everyone’s experiences and grievances are legitimate, and while that certainly helps sell Summer’s confusion as to which path to take, it means the film has as hard a time finding a shape as its protagonists.
As Summer, Renee is bright and tempestuous, convincingly embodying the incandescent capacity for both good and chaos that the title suggests. One half expects her to come out with some jinnlike superpowers as the film goes on, but it’s clear that her magic comes from her more mundane transformative powers. I could have used even more detail on Summer’s pre-Islam life — there are hints at her sexual fluidity, and the idea that she’s some kind of Instagram celebrity, that are not quite fleshed out enough to contrast with her attempt at faith. But for the most part, Mu’min’s script is pleasantly inquisitive, and its refusal to arrive at easy answers is its engine. Jinn is a special little film, one that never lets its complicated, contradictory characters become abstractions, but instead revels in all the disparate elements that make them who they are.