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Can ‘Jinn’ be this year’s ‘Lady Bird’?

This coming-of-age story follows an American Muslim girl finding the magic within herself

The best coming-of-age story of the year is about a bi American high school senior in Los Angeles who loves bacon, experimenting with hair dye and dancing.

She’s also recently begun practicing Islam.

So begins the story of Summer (Zoe Renee) in Jinn, the sure-footed debut film from writer-director Nijla Mu’min, out Thursday in theaters and video on demand. With its fiery and fraught mother-daughter confrontations, it’s sure to draw comparisons to last year’s favorite, Lady Bird.

Summer is new to Islam, and she’s begun attending a local masjid, mostly at the behest of her single mother, a meteorologist named Jade Jennings (Simone Missick). Jade’s ex-husband, David (played by Missick’s real-life husband, Dorian Missick), has a new girlfriend, and Jade’s only child is about to leave for college. But before she does, Jade is determined to drag Summer through yet another one of her spiritual exploits. When she was younger, Jade was both a New Age Black Panther and a Buddhist. Now she’s seeking guidance and peace in the Quran.

Summer, on the other hand, likes charming her crush at the neighborhood pizza joint to get extra pepperoni on her slices. She’s impressed by the skill one of her friends exhibits in the pole-dancing videos she posts online. She wears a hijab sometimes, but not always. She wants to study dance in college.

Jinn follows mother’s and daughter’s parallel tracks of self-discovery. Jade is trying to figure out how openly Muslim she can be at her news station, while Summer is experimenting with sexuality, independence and asserting her own identity. Even as Summer is ambivalent about Islam, she encourages her mother to wear her headscarf at work and embrace what she believes without shame or worry. The film takes its name from supernatural beings that are part of Islamic mythology: shape-shifters, which can be male or female, which bask in free will while inhabiting another universe, which use fire to burn and destroy, or to warm their worlds. Upon learning about the jinn, Summer immediately identifies.

What’s refreshing about Jinn is the way Mu’min effortlessly offers multiple depictions of what it means to be an American Muslim. She allows for a spectrum like the one Jews take for granted: Some are secular, some are Reform, some are Conservative, some are Orthodox, some are Hasidic — but everyone’s part of the tribe. In a world colored by misinformation, stereotypes and Islamophobia, it’s easy to forget that there are many ways to be Muslim too, even if that’s not how Islam shows up in news reports. Jinn isn’t a polemic or a treatise on Islamophobia. Instead, it offers a portrait of what it means to be a Muslim girl who’s curious about sex, who is figuring out how to define herself and who is puzzling through how to do that against a wallpaper of societal norms that declare nascent female sexuality as dirty, destructive and dangerous.

In an essay for school, Summer reveals how she feels about her mother and herself: “I want to be what my mother wants, but I’m scared of what I want,” she writes. “I want to be like her, but I already feel tainted.”

But it’s not her friends at the masjid who are giving Summer this message — it’s her newly minted Muslim mom. When Summer begins seeing a boy named Tahir (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whom she knows from school and the masjid, it’s Jade who freaks out.

Zoe Renee (left) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (right) in a scene from Jinn.

Courtesy of Orion Classics

During one tense car ride, Mu’min illustrates how parents can send harmful ideas about gender and sex. When Jade gets angry at Summer for being insufficiently pious, she slut-shames her and forbids her from seeing Tahir.

“I finally found something that makes me happy and you want to mock it!” Jade hisses.

Meanwhile, Tahir’s parents, who have been practicing Islam for years, are fine with their son spending time alone in his bedroom with Summer. And it’s Tahir’s mother who comes to Summer’s defense when she posts a selfie on Instagram wearing a leopard-print sports bra and a headscarf with the captions “#halalhottie” and “#sexymuslimah.”

The more Jade tries to impose her will on Summer, the more she pushes her away, a familiar dynamic. Renee imbues Summer with a teenage vulnerability as Missick layers her performance with all the hurt and missed opportunities she keeps projecting onto her daughter. Jade tells Summer she’s from a “small, broken” family. She wants nothing more than a wholeness that seems to keep escaping her. And what Jade finds is that the tighter she clings, the more resentment and distance she creates.

Mu’min drew inspiration for Jinn from her own life after noticing the gulf between the way she grew up and the stories about Muslims on-screen. So she raised money through a Kickstarter campaign, then debuted Jinn at SXSW.

Jinn quivers with joy and uncertainty, confidence and shame, delivering exactly what makes independent cinema exciting: a bright new voice with a bold vision.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.