Identity Is At Center Of Charming, Heartwarming Coming Of Age [SXSW]

Mar 23, 2023

Growing up is hard. Growing up with a mustache that started to grow out before hitting puberty is even harder. Add to the fact that Ilyas is a Pakistani American teen going to public school for the first time, and one can expect a few shenanigans to be had. Written and directed by Imran J. Khan, Mustache is a touching, sometimes humorous coming of age. The film isn’t shy about wearing its heart on its sleeve, and though it doesn’t delve too deep into certain aspects of Ilyas’ life, Khan handles the story and the main character’s feelings gently.

Ilyas’ (Atherma Verma) mustache started growing at the age of ten. He’s been stuck with it ever since and, despite being 14 years old, his parents (Rizwan Manji and Mojeane Sadr) won’t let him shave it. Due to his father’s flailing business, Ilyas is also faced with a big change, moving from his Islamic school to a public school. Feeling like he doesn’t fit in, Ilyas concocts a plan with his friend Yasmeen (Ayana Manji): She writes Ilyas emails pretending to be his new girlfriend in the hopes that his parents will find out and send him back to the school where he at least knows all the rules.

Mustache isn’t trying to do anything out of the norm, but Khan handles the subject matter with ease and a deep sense of warmth. Ilyas is a relatable character who is simply having a tough time transitioning to a new school and feeling like he doesn’t fit in — be it because of his ethnicity and religion or his feeling weird compared to the other students at his Islamic school. Ilyas struggles even more because he doesn’t live up to his parents’ expectations of him, and he’s often feeling like a disappointment, especially when he and so many other boys are compared to Arun, the high school senior who is seen as an example of what every Muslim youth should aspire to be.

Atherma Verma is wonderful as Ilyas. He imbues the character with the right amount of teen awkwardness and earnestness. When he’s overcome with certain emotions, and doesn’t know how to express them, Verma’s performance allows the audience to believe that he would take out his frustrations on others. Rizwan Manji is fantastic as Ilyas’ father, and though he gets less to work with, he gives everything he’s got to the role, making the character sympathetic. The rest of the supporting cast is great as well despite not having enough time to shine.

There are certain elements of Mustache that could have been expanded upon — including Ilyas’ relationship with his father, which is only briefly explored. There are a lot of layers there that go unearthed unfortunately, and while the film is no less heartfelt because of it, the father/son dynamic could have been fleshed out further had it been more of a focus. This might have afforded Mustache a bit more depth and higher emotional stakes.

That said, the film remains an enjoyable watch regardless. Khan infuses Mustache with tenderness splashed with a bit of awkwardness, which effectively encapsulates Ilyas’ coming-of-age story. The film is full of heart and humor, and the message of self-acceptance in a world where there is pressure to be anyone but oneself is affirming and lovely. Bolstered by a fantastic performance by Verma, Mustache makes for a sweet and wholesome viewing experience.

Mustache had its premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival on March 12. The film is 81 minutes long and not yet rated.

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